Race Day Pacing Strategies


Leading the field: Paula Radcliffe
The Athens Olympic Marathon in 2004 was meant to be Paula Radcliffe's race. Since her marathon debut in London in 2002 the British world record holder had never been defeated over the distance. Certainly the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Japanese presented an outside threat, but Radcliffe was the bookies' favourite going into the race.

It was a different story for America's top runner Deena Kastor. She didn't even figure in the predicted top five, but she should have. Both runners had trained hard and were mentally prepared for the challenge but the pair adopted completely different approaches to race strategies.

Radcliffe set the pace, as she had in all her previous marathons, daring the other runners to keep up with her. Kastor had a different approach though. She'd decided, with her coach, that the Athens course required a steady first half with a bigger effort in the second, as the course became hillier but conditions became cooler. Her perfectly-paced effort saw her run a conservative race to pick off runners in the closing stages and finished strongly to win a surprising bronze medal. It was the USA's first Olympic Marathon medal since Joan Benoit Samuelson won gold at the inaugural women's marathon in 1984.

Kastor's tactical decision to run a classic negative split earned her a place on the podium while Radcliffe sat on the side of the road with her head in her hands, proving beyond doubt that perfect pacing will always reap rewards, even in conditions that defeat the toughest of athletes.

Split the difference
Running a negative split, as Kastor chose to in Athens, is one of the most popular pacing strategies in racing. It simply means that you run the second half of the race faster than the first, which is a safe strategy if you're racing yourself and the clock rather than other runners. Steve Smythe, a coach and marathon runner, suggests easing into the pace that you intend to run at. "Try to reach the halfway point in roughly half of your goal time," he says. "Speed up a little after that until you reach the last 10 per cent of the race. Then you should give it your all."

Half measures
Another way to approach the negative split is that adopted by many elite runners. They run the first half of a race conservatively before attacking the second half as the real race. Mike Gratton, a coach and former London Marathon winner, has tried using this two-races-in-one approach, as well as attacking straight from the gun. "Nearly every time I have gone for it from the start, I have blown up," he says. "During my best performances, such as my London Marathon win in 1982, I ran a calculated pace to the halfway mark then moved through the field."

Fast forward
While the negative split may be a favourite pacing strategy with coaches, it isn't the only approach. The positive split, which often relies on a fast start, is a riskier strategy, but there's increasing evidence that it can work too. Researchers in New Hampshire in the USA decided to find out how different pacing strategies affect race results. They asked 11 experienced female runners to run 5K on a treadmill to determine their average for the distance.

The runners were then asked to run 5K again, but tackling the first 1.63K at different speeds: once at the same split time as their average time, once three per cent faster, and once six per cent faster. The researchers discovered that eight out of the 11 women ran the fastest 5K when they started six per cent quicker, in other words they ran a positive split. Overall the fastest-start trial times were 13 seconds quicker than the three-per-cent-faster times, and 32 seconds faster than the even-pace trial times; results that would translate to a new personal best for many of us.

Short circuit
Other sports scientists have recorded similar findings, but stress that this strategy only works over shorter distances. "Some data suggests that starting fast enhances the transport of oxygen and resultant energy production, termed oxygen uptake kinetics," says Professor Greg Whyte of the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Science, Liverpool John Moores University. This is particularly true of shorter races up to 5K but he warns that starting too fast might also lead to such a high rate of anaerobic metabolism – where the lungs cannot transport enough oxygen into the blood to keep up with the muscles' demands – that performance will be impaired.

Brain gain
Although the New Hampshire researchers asked their volunteers to complete more than 25 per cent of the 5K at a higher pace, even a shorter burst could produce good results since it often provides a mental boost. "If you can dominate in the early stages of a race, then settle into your normal pace once you've broken away from the opposition, you'll gain a psychological advantage," says Gratton. Smythe agrees, but issues a warning: "There is no harm starting quickly for a short period, say the first 800m in a 5K or first mile in a marathon," he says, "but you should settle into your goal race pace after that."


Pushing the pace in the final stages

Beat the system
Whatever mental advantage you gain from a fast start won't count for anything unless you have the energy to sustain the pace though, which explains why the positive split is rejected by many athletes as simply being too risky. "In order to run as fast as possible, you need to maintain the highest sustainable amount of energy production for the distance you are covering," says Whyte. Since different distances require different amounts of energy, they rely on different physiological systems.

Whyte explains: "Sprinting for 200m relies almost entirely on the short-lived anaerobic energy production system, while running for 800m uses a 50/50 split of aerobic and anaerobic energy, and running a marathon is almost entirely aerobic." With most runners relying on their aerobic systems for races of 5K and over, being able to maintain pace is all about keeping just below your lactate threshold.

Measure up
To find out what that means for you, consider the pace you ran for your last 10-mile race or half-marathon. This pace is likely to be just below your lactate threshold, or roughly 80 to 85 per cent of your maximum heart rate, says Nick Anderson, the British cross-country coach. An even simpler way to measure your lactate threshold is to run at a pace where you can only gasp out three to four words at a time.

Talk test
By applying variations of this talk-test strategy you can pace yourself over any distance. In a marathon, for example, Whyte suggests that you should be able to speak short sentences with short breaks in between. At half-marathon pace you should be able to speak short sentences but need long breaks in between. At 10K you cannot hold a conversation but only utter single words intermittently. And 5K you should not be able to talk at all.

Judgement day
Another physiological approach to pacing is to measure heart rate. A heart-rate monitor (HRM) will allow you to maintain an even effort that factors in your physiological response to external influences such as topography, weather and time of day. If you're completing a hilly race, for example, you might need to slow your pace on the hills and raise it on the flats in order to run with an even heart rate. Even if you've paced yourself well in the past, an HRM is a helpful additional guide, especially if your heart rate is higher than normal at an intended pace, which might indicate that you're coming down with an illness. Keeping an eye on your pace with a heart rate monitor should also stop you from starting a race too quickly. "Some runners don't seem to have the patience or control to hold back at the required pace," says Smythe, "and some runners also have too much speed for their own good and don't realise how fast they've gone."

Clock off
You can pace yourself in other ways too. "As well as running against the clock, or against a physiological response (such as heart rate or lactate concentration), you can race against a competitor," says Whyte. Some runners claim to perform better when they try to keep up with another racer, saying that focusing on the other runner stops them obsessing about their own pace, but most coaches agree this is a risky strategy.

"You may try to run with someone who is fitter, aiming for a faster time, runs at a variable pace, or who drags you through the first half and falls apart in the second half, leaving you on your own," says Smythe. "You know what training you have done, what pace has previously worked for you and what you want to achieve in this race." If you do find that you finish a race feeling that you could have given more, use this information when planning your next race. "Run your own race, not someone else's," says Smythe. Only run with other people if they are running at a pace you have trained for and know you're capable of.

Goal difference
If you do want to take your focus away from the pace, start each race with a series of goals in mind. The first should be a realistic goal that forces you to set a good pace; the second could be a "plan B" that you might move to if everything goes perfectly, and the third goal might be worst-case scenario if you don't feel good on the day. "Most runners have a time at the back of their mind that they would be happy with if things don't quite go to plan," says Gratton. You can also have several goals within one race, especially if it's a longer race and you need to stay focused. "In a marathon, have target times for the first 10K, half-marathon and 20 miles," says Whyte. "The goals should be realistic though; not attaining goals can be more destructive than having no goals at all."

Patch work
It's also worth having a strategy for dealing with a bad patch in a race. "Make it positive," says Anderson. "Stay relaxed, remind yourself of your best training session, or think of the charity you're raising money for." A positive approach will help you through tough patches in races – proving that mental preparation is just as important as your physical fitness when it comes to pacing – but it's a bit of a Catch-22 since mental toughness counts for little if you haven't trained well.

Nature or nurture
"While you may have the occasional breakthrough if you run according to instinct, the majority of runners who go out too fast pay for it in the end with slower times," says Smythe. Whyte agrees: "Instinct is a pseudonym for experience. Experienced runners can tell you what pace they are running based on experience. Think about how you feel at a certain pace and use that feeling – often called rate of perceived exertion – to dictate your pace." If you do rely on "instinct", be conservative. If you were planning to run 8-minute miles, for example, but feel good running at 7:45 pace, and feel that you've nothing to lose, stick to this pace and see how it goes.

Distance learning
"In a race you can only run at a pace you have become accustomed to in training," says Smythe. Plenty of runners struggle with pacing because they never run at their target pace until the race but practising race pace in training will bring both mental and physical benefits. Khalid Khannouchi, a former marathon world record holder, famously does his long runs before a marathon at race pace.

"Logically it makes you confident if you can run segments of your long run at race pace," says Anderson. "But you have to build this up over months and layer on the amounts of race pace you practise." Fail to practise this in training and you're unlikely to improve. "Many runners train at an easy pace with a few intervals but never practise race pace," says Anderson. "These are the same people who have old PBs that they simply can't break. Don't expect to run quicker if you don't put in the training."

Brain game
The mental edge that race-pace training brings may help you to overcome the fatigue that's inevitable if you're pushing the pace. This is a hot topic in the scientific community at the moment. "In general physiology dictates maximum sustainable pace, but there is much debate regarding the causes of fatigue," says Whyte. "Some scientists believe fatigue is entirely peripheral, in other words associated with a variety of mechanisms including blood flow and lactic acid (physiological).

Others, in particular Professor Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, have suggested the brain controls the pace at which we can run." This is the Central Governor Theory (see "Hold That Thought", page 72 this issue, and "Hanging Tough", RW March, for more on this theory). It seems likely that there are both psychological and physiological elements in the fatigue process, and that mental approach can have an important impact on pacing and performance.

Anderson agrees there is still much research to be done into how the brain responds to running at an uncomfortably fast pace. "We seem to put up mental barriers as safety mechanisms through a natural fear of failure," he says. The brain sets a pre-determined line that is not to be crossed physiologically. Noakes suggests that it is possible to push ourselves further, though, if we have the desire to do so and the ability to work through these mental barriers.

No doubt Kastor would agree. Before the Athens Marathon she declared: "This is going to be the most taxing, brutal, challenging death march of my life." It was, but she had the physical and mental toughness to run at her own pace, and silenced her detractors by saying: "Don't these people know the power of dreaming?"