Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


Why Following a Pace Group Could Ruin Your Chances of a PR

Are you worried about how to properly pace your upcoming marathon or half marathon?

So aren’t thousands of runners who will be toeing the line next to you on race day, especially since research shows that recreational runners misjudge pace by almost 40 seconds per mile. That’s why the popularity of pace groups at marathons and half marathons has exploded over the last few years.

Pace groups promise to get you to the finish line on target or no more than two minutes faster – for free.  It sounds like the perfect race strategy. Just find the pacer, follow as best you can, and hang on for the ride.

But, like all “get fit without trying” plans, could pace groups be too good to be true? Could relying on a pacer actually hurt your chances of recording a PR?

In this article, we’ll outline two important reasons you may want to reconsider relying on a pace group to get you across the finish line ahead of your goal time. Plus, I’ll show you how to effectively use a pace group should one be available for your goal time.

Why following a pacer isn’t a good race strategy

Despite the title of this article, you will find that most pacers will finish very close to their goal time. So, why then would it be a bad idea to follow one?

The problem is that pacers don’t run always implement an optimal pacing strategy.

For pacers, whose ability and personal best far exceed the pace they are trying to hit, running a less than optimal strategy does not impact their ability to hit the target. For example, if you were trying to run a half marathon 15 minutes slower than your best time, you could easily run the first two miles two minutes too fast and still easily finish. However, run two minutes fast for the first two miles of a PR effort and you’ll fade hard the last three miles.

Pacers don’t intentionally start out too fast, breeze through water stops, or otherwise not run an optimal race strategy. However, because the pace is relatively easy for them, many don’t realize how much being slightly off can ruin your chances at a PR finish.

After six years of coaching over 800 marathon runners, here are the three most common mistakes I’ve found pace groups make:

Starting out too fast

Let me tell you a true story (with names changed to protect the innocent). I recently coached a runner who was training for her second half marathon – let’s call her Barbara. Barbara’s goal was to finish the race in under 2 hours and 30 minutes, which, given her training paces, was within her capabilities.

With her detailed race plan and specific target paces in hand, Barbara toed the line ready to run the 11:27 pace average. However, as she glanced across the mass of runners, she noticed a runner holding up a sign – 2:30 pace group. “Great, now I don’t have to worry about my pace, I can just run with that guy!”

As the race started, Barbara locked onto the pacer and just focused on staying as close to the group as she could. After the first mile, Barbara looked down at her watch and saw the pace read 10:50. With the adrenaline from the race, the 10:50 mile didn’t feel that difficult and Barbara figured she was ok. As the second mile came to close, Barbara once again noticed the pace was too fast – 11:10. The third mile was again a tad too quick at 11:20.

Soon, Barbara started to fade from the pace group and eventually finished the race in 2:35. After reaching her family and recapping here race, they informed her that the pacer had come in exactly at 2:30. While the pacer was easily able to handle being 70 seconds fast over the first three miles, it destroyed Barbara’s chances of finishing strong.

Unfortunately, this an all too common experience for runners who follow a pacer. To get out of the crowds and because of the adrenaline of the race, the pacer will often start out far too fast. And, because the pace is quite easy for the pacer, they may not even realize it and it certainly won’t impact their ability to finish strong.

Crowding and pace fluctuations

Along the same line, some runners find the pace fluctuations that naturally occur during a long marathon race – such as up and down hills, at water stops, and the general fatigue/adrenaline spurts that all runners go through during a race – difficult to deal with mentally.

Runners who use a pace group need to be cognizant of their own personal strengths and weaknesses during a race and be ready to handle these pace fluctuations without mentally defeating themselves. If the pacer is constantly getting ahead of you on the uphills or pulls away as you have a bad patch (which will happen in every race), it can be the straw that snaps your focus and confidence. This can be a difficult task for a novice runner if you’re not prepared for it.

Likewise, another issue you may confront when running with a pace group is the crowding and general chaos at the start and water stations. Generally, the slower your pace group, the more crowded the water stops will be and the more difficult it will be to navigate your way through them.  Getting adequate fluids and fuel is critical, even early in the race, so missing opportunities because of crowded stations is less than ideal. Many Olympic runners have had their race foiled by missing just one water bottle – and they only need to run for a little over two hours!

How to use pace groups to hit your goal

Understand, I am not saying that all pacers do a terrible job or that pace groups shouldn’t ever be a small component of your race strategy. I am grateful that other runners offer their services and volunteer to help other runners. I am merely pointing out that relying on a pace group is not how you should approach and plan your goal race. Instead, you should learn to use the pace group to your advantage – by stalking them.

Stalking a pace group means using the pace group as a marker and for motivation during the race, but relying on your own sense of pace and natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to your race strategy. This plan allows you to implement the race strategy you’ve trained for and is optimal for your tendencies. Yet, you can still take advantage of the opportunity to have a barometer to assess your progress as well as a group for motivation, should you need one.

I advise athletes I coach to start the first 4-5 miles of a marathon to forget about any pace group entirely and run their own pace and practice the pacing strategies they’ve honed in training. After 5 miles, they can look around and try to find the pace group and use the mass as an indicator to make sure they don’t lose focus. If they find the pacer pulling away, check their time and internal sense of pace and verify they’re still on target.

If you’re a runner who is motivated by a group rather than internal drive, run closer to the group to take advantage of the encouragement offered by the pacer and other group members. Just remember to keep your eye on your own pace and effort. If having other runners cheering disrupts your natural rhythm, simply run on the opposite side of the road.

As you plan your race strategy for your goal marathon or half marathon this fall, reconsider the roll a pace group will have in your strategy and ensure you have everything in line to execute the perfect race plan.

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11 Responses on “Why Following a Pace Group Could Ruin Your Chances of a PR

  1. Sound advice! I have had great success with pace groups, but for a half I did last weekend, I found an additional stress — the large crowd that clumps around the leader. We were in the 2:10 group for the half, and during the latter part of the race, we started “picking up” runners who’d been ahead of us. Our group snowballed into a massive pack! I was able to pick up my pace for the last four miles and get just ahead of the group, which made for a much more pleasant run. I’d been planning on using a pacer for my fall marathon but now may try the stalking approach instead. Thank you!

    • Thanks for sharing, Anne and glad you had a chance to pull ahead of the group in the final miles. I definitely think the stalker strategy will serve you well and best of luck with the race!

  2. First of all I love receiving your coach emails… so informative and clearly written and stated, better than any running sites I have researched. Now I just look up u to see an opinion or tip on something. Next, I am powerwalker….2:34 half. 5:40 full. But all your info is very applicable to us. I try to keep an even pace for the full to achieve that time because I find it keeps me strong at end as opposed to friends who beat it out of box and still come in with me……..right now trying to figure out fuel….would love to carry nothing but at 5:40 need something…..of course doing this on training walks…..keep up great articles

  3. I was planning to use a pace group at my upcoming December half marathon (only my second), but now I’m rethinking it. The reason i wanted to take advantage was because I’m terrible at judging my own pace except by looking down at the app on my phone in the armband which is just way too much unnecessary twisting and movement. How do you suggest runners self-pace? A stopwatch with the ability to record laps/splits? At least it’s easier to see the stopwatch than to look at the armband. But are there better options?

  4. I cannot follow a pace group to save my life. I always start out slow and then pick it up. The pace groups are even paced and I fall behind within 2 miles. Falling behind is morally defeating even though I know that I always negative split.

    (Side Note: I’m really impressed that you gave an example of a runner targeting a 2:30 finish. I’m targeting the same and every article I read seem to be geared towards faster runners at sub-2 half marathon finish)

  5. I want to share with this article two awesome comments that were posted to our Team RunnersConnect group that I think would be helpful here.

    From Rob Sklenar:

    The article on running with pace groups today was a good read. I myself work as a pacer relatively often and frankly love to do it (you usually feel like to helped some people plus you get a free race in) but the things highlighted are very true. There are good pacers who work very hard to keep it easy at the beginning but we usually focus on as even splits as possible. I usually aim to be a minute slow at the halfway point. But still, from a pacers point of few, the race usually goes the same way. Usually there is a large, happy group for the first 16-18 miles. Many are a bit “over their head” but hoping for a miracle and a PR. Most start dropping off between 16 and 18. A few, usually those who tell you they think they can run 10 minutes or so faster but want some help and are realistic stay on your should the rest of the way. Pacers often “pick up” runners who had loftier goals and start breaking down in the final miles. It’s actually rewarding when you can break someone out hitting the wall and get them back on track for a decent finish.

    Finally I’d cite my own experience trying to use a pacer. This year at the LA Marathon I wanted to run about 3:25 but because of all the training I was doing for a 50 miler wasn’t positive about my actual fitness. The pacer went out way too fast and I just sort of hung in with him, thinking maybe my fitness was better than I thought. 5 miles in he told us “we’re doing great, already have 2 minutes in the bank.” I knew it was not good but kept going. At the half I looked at my watch 1:39:40 (on pace for 3:20). I knew I was dead even though I felt decent. Wheels feel off around 21-22, second half was about 1:51 for 3:31. As a pacer myself I knew better than hanging on like that but fell into the trap that he would make it easier for me and hey “today just might be a miracle day for me!” Lesson learned.

  6. And another…

    enjoyed reading your article: as it happens I was one of “them” for the first time just about a month ago 😉 . But before I go on: don´t worry I´m offended, I´ve had all kinds of experiences with pacers as well, some of them good, some of them… not so good. Besides: running as a pacer myself now has shown that it might take some “tweaking” to get the time right I´m afraid.

    The marathon I ran as a pacer was Finlands largest Marathon, Helsinki City Marathon. What´s always surprised me is the fact that there are really many pacers per group (in Helsinki that is). I was assigned to the 4:15 group, we were 5 runners all in all. And it was the same with all the other groups (starting at 4:00 one group every 15 or 30 minutest). But now that I read your article I´m beginning to think that´s a really good idea because there are lots of runners responsible for getting it right. We also got clear instructions in advance, especially that we have to make up for the lost time (as we hat to finish 4:15 after the gunshot) by km 21 but without rushing it and make sure there´s enough time for everyone following to get their drinks at the refreshment stations. We were supposed to walk at every refreshment station, never run by and drink while running (obviously that wouldn´t work all the way with a goal of 3:30 or quicker).

    All in all, with those instructions and experienced pacers runners leading the groups, there was no problem whatsoever with starting too fast. We adapted to the circumstances (when it was crowded, we went with the flow, when there was enough space we bit by bit made up for the time lost), took it easy at the refreshment points and were officially on track halfway. But of course: making up for the lost time and the simple fact that due to other runners you can´t always run at your own pace, it wasn´t the super constant pace that one always thinks the pacers will run. So those who followed us will definitely have noticed some minor ups and downs in the pace during the first 10-15K.

    The only thing that went clearly wrong was that one of our lead pacers panicked a bit 1K before the finish – some miscalculation led him to believe we were going to be late – so he and we on his heels suddenly increased the pace quite a bit. Only to notice 1/2K later that we were going to be almost 2min early. I would probably just have cursed in my head and crossed the finish line but our lead pacer was “experienced enough” to slow almost completely down in order to get the result polished: indeed we finished 10 seconds under our target time… All in all, we did a great job until 41K, a little mistake at that point won´t have made any difference in the end to anyone following us but it was completely unnecessary. And I can only imagine how hard it must have felt for those following us to see us sprint away – and thus the hope of finishing under 4:15.

    Something that I´ve learned from my marathons with Coach Casey is that planning to run negative splits not only gives the best result but also means you may get really far before the tough part starts. That obviously is something you´re inevitably going to miss out on when running with pacers. So for someone really trying to maximize the result, it would be best to follow their own strategy no doubt. For someone who gets mental support from not having to worry about the pace and having experienced runners around him, running with pacers is a great option I think. As long as you don´t turn your brain off completely and keep an eye on the pace yourself – at least until you can trust the pacers to know what they´re doing.

    But as a final note: the key to offering good pacing groups really seems to be that the whole thing has to be organized properly. Not just “every pacer for himself” but clear instructions to follow: transparent for both the pacers and any runner who asks about how the pacers approach the run. And of course at least two pacers per group; five like in Helsinki might be a bit on the extreme side but if they work well together, why not, the more the merrier 😉

  7. I appreciate that the pacers are out there but never use them myself. I do “use” them to mark out my start though. If I want to run a 1:45 half, I get in front of the 1:50 pacer and stay with him/her the first two miles! Then it’s my goal to catch up with the 1:45 group but I get to do it at my own pace.

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