If you race like me, then this scenario is all too familiar:
You begin a race with a goal time and/or projected pace for the race distance based on your recent training. But soon after the race begins, everything goes out the window. Due to a good taper, your legs are fresh. The average pace you had planned on running feels easy –too easy–and you make the mistake of picking up the pace until it feels hard. It’s a race, so the pace should feel hard, right?
During this time, your mind is waging a war with itself. The reasonable side is telling you to slow down. You know that you can’t sustain these paces. But the other side is trying to convince you that you could magically run substantially faster for the remainder of the race.
You maintain that pace for another few minutes or miles (depending on race distance) but then reality, panic and fear sets in, but it’s too late. You spend the rest of the miles WISHING the race to end. Questioning what you are doing. Counting down the tenths of each mile. Staring at your watch and having thoughts of just quitting because of how tired you feel.
Sometimes you may be close to your goal time; other times not. But you always have positive splits and you never fully enjoy racing because of how much pain you experience in the later miles.
For many years, I didn’t have one race where I had negative or consistent splits. Not ONE. I practiced this all the time in training runs– start slow, finish fast. But come race day, my mind got fuzzy and I disregarded my training and race strategy.
The more I run, train and race, the more I am learning about the art and science of pacing. And I’ve learned that it’s different for everyone. There are some runners who can hold a fast, steady pace from start to finish. Others run much stronger if they start slow and see their pace pick up as the miles tick by. Some runners can push hard in the beginning and then hold on until the finish. But regardless of which method of racing they prefer, the most successful racers run within themselves and pace well from the onset.
Here are a few pacing tips that can help you become a stronger racer:
Warm-up: Just like training runs, allow the first part of a race to be a warmup. The longer the race, the longer the warmup. So for a marathon, you can use the first couple of miles; for a 5k, maybe the first couple of minutes. You don’t have to run these miles much slower than your goal pace, but it’s a good idea to slowly ease into the goal pace rather than go out right from the onset.
Practice makes perfect: One of the best ways to become a better pacer is to practice it in training. You can focus on consistent splits and/or finishing fast on training runs– both of which will pay on race day. Aim for last couple of miles of a run to be your fastest miles of the day
Trust your training: You trained for a certain pace. Trust it. You will show up to the start line with freshly tapered legs and the pace will feel so easy when you start. After a couple of miles, you may start to have thoughts of running much faster. Don’t give in. Trust your training and save energy for the last portion of the race.
There is no such thing as banking time: Banking time means running much faster than your goal pace in the early miles in hopes of saving time that you can use later in the race when you start to slow down. Example: Your goal is a sub-4 hour marathon. You’ve trained for a 9:05 min/mile pace. But you decide to run the first half in 1:50 (8:23 pace) so that you can slow up and run the second half in 2:10. But your half marathon PR is right around 1:50, so you are exhausted after the first half, but you still have another 13.1 miles to run. This concept most often backfires. If you start too fast early on, you will bonk and no amount of banked time will help you hit your goal.
Come up with a race plan that works for you: Know the course and elevation profile. It will help you to create a pacing plan if you know where the uphills, downhills or flat sections are. Do what works for you. If you want to keep a certain pace for every mile, do that. If you are like me, and prefer to keep a pace based on effort (taking into account hills), do that. But have a plan on race morning and stick with it!
Focus on one mile at a time: Regardless of race distance or goal pace, there will be points in the race where you start to question how you can sustain that pace for “x” more miles. Don’t think ahead. Tell yourself that you can run that pace for one mile. Just get through that mile. Then focus on the next.
Train/Race by feel: This was a change I made over the winter and it made a world of difference in my racing. Rather than focusing on a certain pace, focus on how you feel. I ran the 2015 Boston Marathon with just the total time visible on my GPS – and it was the strongest and most consistent marathon of my life.
Ignore outside influences: The cheering crowd, the excitement of race day, that runner in front of you who you want to pass – don’t let these things get in the way of your race strategy. Let them ADD to it. Use them to your advantage. At points during the race, if you are feeling low, take in the crowds and cheering zones. If there is a group of runners who seem to be running your pace, try sticking with them.