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.