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 fast per mile 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 often get thrown off as adrenaline rushes through your body and hundreds of runners fly by you and test your ego.
Unfortunately, pacing is not an aspect of racing most runners are particularly good at. A recent study found that recreational runners misjudged their pacing efforts by almost 40 seconds per mile compared to experienced college runners, who were only off by about 10 seconds per mile.
Given the importance of pacing and its obvious difficulty for many 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 your pacing
In order to improve your ability to pace yourself, you simply must practice pacing – there are no shortcuts. Learning to pace yourself isn’t something that comes easy. 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. Keep working to refine your senses each week and you’ll eventually be your own running metronome. In the meantime, here are some tips and workouts that should help speed the process along:
1. Learn to listen to your body.
The first step in becoming a better pacer is by learning to listen to your body and recognizing subtle changes in pace and effort. One of the most effective ways to practice this technique is to listen to your breathing. Once you lock on to your goal pace for the workout, cover up the GPS watch and listen to your breathing. Feel the rhythm in your legs, and notice the motion of your arms.
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 often and you’ll start to develop the ability to correlate effort with pace.
2. Develop pace-specific pace workouts.
You can also integrate specific workouts into your training schedule that will help you feel the difference between a small change in pace. My two favorite workouts for this are the cutdown run and the alternating tempo run.
During a cutdown run, start at a specific pace and try to drop five to ten seconds per mile until the run is finished. Not only is this a difficult challenge because you’re trying to speed up as fatigue rises, but quickening your pace by only five to ten seconds a mile is a very slight distinction. Learning to recognize the difference between such close paces will help you to be better able to distinguish between when you unconsciously slow down or speed up during a race.
Likewise, the alternating tempo run requires you to switch between marathon pace and 10K pace each mile. Constantly slowing down and speeding up throughout your workout prevents you from getting in a comfortable zone and challenges your ability to quickly recognize and lock into different paces. This skill is helpful for having to slow down and speed up for crowds and water stops in a race situation.
Both of these workouts require you to continually adjust your sense of 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 detract from your physiological training goals.
3. Simulate race conditions.
Once you’ve started to get the hang of pacing in workouts, the next challenge is learning to do so in a race situation. 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 seems to be cruising by you.
Set 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 low-key, local race and adjust your training schedule so your normal tempo run 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 when you’re doing a workout on your own.
4. Vary your terrain.
Varying the terrain of your workout can also be an effective way to improve your pacing skills. If you’re having a difficult time controlling your pace in races and workouts, consider running your workouts on the track. The constant and accurate feedback every 400 meters is helpful if you can’t seem to lockdown the right pace and will help you begin to develop a good feel for pacing.
If you’re an experienced runner, take your workouts to an unfamiliar road and use your GPS only to tell you when you’ve finished an interval. Absent of 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.
5. Don’t slack off, even if you’re experienced.
Finally, practice your pacing skills during each new training segment to account for advancing fitness levels, age, and changing courses. The key to recalibrating your sense of pace after advancing in fitness or coming back from an injury is to give yourself the chance to identify your weaknesses. Avoid jumping into a race without first bringing your sense of pace in line with your current fitness level.