How to Teach Yourself the Art of Pacing to Improve Your Race Performance
The line between setting a new personal best and a near miss is often razor thin.
A simple mistake, like running just a few seconds too slowly at any point during a race could change your primary energy system and spell disaster for a personal record attempt.
To make the task more difficult, your sense of pace and effort get thrown off as adrenaline rushes through your body and hundreds of runners test your ego as they fly by.
Unfortunately, pacing is not an aspect of racing most runners are particular good at.
A recent study found that recreational runners misjudges pace by almost 40 seconds per mile compared to an experienced college runner that estimates inaccurately by 10 seconds.
Given the importance of pacing and its obvious difficulty for most runners, how do you separate yourself from the pack and train to pace yourself like clockwork?
Particularly, where does pace training fit into a schedule already packed with threshold workouts, long runs, and VO2max sessions?
How to improve pacing
Like the “10,000 hour” rule coined by Malcolm Gladwell, there are no shortcuts to improving your pacing — you simply must practice. It takes countless miles on the road and laps around the track to develop an inherent sense of pace. So, don’t get discouraged if you don’t pick it up right away.
Each practice will refine your senses until you become your own running metronome. In the meantime, here are some tips and workouts that should help speed the process:
Listen to your body
The first step is learning to listen to your body and recognize subtle changes in pace and effort. Perhaps the most effective way to practice this technique is to listen to your breathing.
Once you lock onto your correct goal pace for the workout, cover up the Garmin and listen to your breathing, feel the rhythm in your legs, and notice the motion of your arms. Think of yourself like a Jedi master.
If you start to breath slower, faster, deeper or more shallow, check your pace to see how this breathing change correlates with your speed.
Once your workout is finished, analyze your splits to see if you maintained a consistent pace. Practice this technique continually and you’ll start to develop the ability to correlate effort with pace.
Learn to notice pace changes
During a cutdown run, you start at a specific pace and try to drop five to ten seconds per mile. Not only is this a difficult challenge because you’re trying to speed up as you get more tired, but increasing your pace by only five to ten seconds a mile is a very slight distinction.
Learning to recognize a minute pace difference will help you identify slowing down and speeding up during a race.
Likewise, the alternating tempo requires you to switch between marathon pace and 10k-pace each mile. Continually slowing down and speeding up throughout your workout prevents you from getting in a comfortable zone and challenges your ability to find and lock into different paces quickly.
This skill is helpful for having to slow and speed up for crowds and water stops in big races.
Both of these workouts require you to continually adjust your sense pace, which enables you to identify the difference in how your body feels with just a small change in speed. Plus, they are great threshold and lactate clearance workouts, so they won’t distract from your physiological training goals.
Simulate race conditions
Once you’ve started to get the hang pacing in workouts by yourself, the next challenge is learning to do so in race conditions.
The first few miles of a major race can be a blur and it can be very difficult to keep your wits about you when adrenaline is flowing and everyone is cruising by you.
I suggest setting up three or four specific workouts in your training cycle that you complete at a local road race. The races don’t have to be large or even the same distance as your goal race. Your objective is to run your own paces, not run a good time.
Find a cheap, local race and adjust your training schedule so your normal tempo or threshold workout that week occurs on the weekend of the race. On race day, simply run your intended workout (or adjust slightly to fit the parameters of the race) at your goal pace.
Don’t let the crowds or excitement get the best of you and monitor how different it feels compared to on the track by yourself.
Vary the terrain
Varying the terrain of your workout can also be an effective way to improve your pacing skills.
If you’re new to trying to control pace or you’re having a difficult time, consider running your workouts on the track. The constant and accurate feedback (Garmins do not do a good job providing “current” pace) is helpful if you can’t seem to lockdown the right pace. Without hills or uneven surfaces, you can begin to develop a good feel for pacing.
If you’re a more experienced runner, take your workouts to an unfamiliar road and use your Garmin only to tell you when your interval is over. Absent familiar visual cues, recognizable hills and turns, and feedback from your watch, you’ll add a new challenge to your pacing skills and stimulate development.
Don’t slack off, even if you’re experienced
Finally, remember to continue to practice your pacing skills during each training segment to account for new fitness levels, age, and course undulations.
The key to recalibrating your sense of pace after advancing in fitness or coming back from an injury is to give yourself chances to identify your weaknesses. You want to avoid jumping into a race without bringing your sense of pace in line with your current fitness by testing yourself in a similar type of challenge.