Pacing Strategy


How do you pace a race so to walk the line of not ending up with a ton of energy at the end but you also not hitting the wall?

In both cases, you are adding minutes or seconds on the course.  We’ve all done it at one time or another.  Many of us have done it many times!

Pacing skills are some of the most difficult to master as a runner and there are many reasons for that.  A few:

  • The competitive energy at the start line
  • Trying to hit a target finish time that we were not adequately trained for
  • Trying to keep up with competitors in better condition
  • Difficulty pairing perceived exertion with race pace
  • Or in the case of going out too slow, lacking the confidence to go out at a speed one is capable of

We all see the young bucks who sprint out to the front at the start at the local 5K, only to drop back a quarter of a mile into the race.  We’ve all probably seen some of those same athletes unleash a beast of a sprint at the end with little pain on their faces as they cross the line

Today I wanted to cover how to properly pace a race, and I’m using data from a race I competed in yesterday as an example.

The chart above is from the Christmas Mile in Springfield, MO on 12/13/14 courtesy of Garmin Connect.  The shaded line is my pace, dotted line is cadence, green line is elevation.  The x-axis is race distance.  While a mile race probably isn’t the best distance to analyze for a post on pacing, I erred in my pacing enough in the race that it will still be valuable!

My final finish time was 5:10.  The most striking data on the chart is the pace line.  It’s a bit impossible to see instantaneous pace due to the scale of the chart’s y-axis but you can see there’s a U-shaped pattern.  [TIP: If you are viewing the chart on Garmin connect, you can hover your mouse over any point and see the exact pace/cadence/elevation and distance or time at that instant.  This screen shot shows me hovering my mouse at 0.06 mile into the race.]

So I started out around 4:30 pace, slowed to 5:30 in the middle, and finished around 4:30-4:40.  It’s generally known that large variations in pace over the course of a race are energetically inefficient.  Had I started out at a more reasonable pace (say 5:00), I probably wouldn’t have slowed as much in the middle and would have finished faster.

And this jives with my experience as an age group athlete in the early 2000’s.  I routinely ran in the low 16 minute range for 5K…anywhere from 5:10-5:20 pace.  Garmin hadn’t built their first GPS watch yet, but I wore a Timex wristwatch and any time I hit the 1 mile mark at 5:00 or under I knew I had no shot at breaking 16 minutes (my PR).

Part of the reason I started out at that pace was due to another fast local runner whom I wanted to try to keep up with.  Hey, he had a racing singlet, racing flats and tattoos of wings on his shoulders.  The immature 23 year old inside my head thought I needed to give him a run for his money.

I noted two factors within the first few seconds of the race: 1) this pace is too fast for me to sustain and 2) a moderate southern wind in our faces.  In a second, I decided to go with him, hoping the time gained due to drafting would make up for time lost due to going out too fast.  When he dropped me at the 500 meter mark, I realized it was a terrible decision and that 23 year old in my head is still an idiot.

So what is the optimal pacing strategy?  Well, it kind of depends upon the runner and the race distance but there are some patterns I’d recommend.

  1. Use past workouts and even race calculators to help you set your goal race time.  No matter how well you adhere to your pacing plan early on, if your fitness does not match your goal time you’ll never make it.
  2. On race day, consider setting your GPS watch to beep if you are running faster than goal pace.
  3. It’s generally better to go out a bit conservative than a bit aggressive.   If you hit acidosis early on, it can be brutal to fight through.
  4. The shorter the race, the more you can get away with early pacing errors.  You can suffer through miles 2 and 3 in a 5K but miles 16-26.2 in a marathon can become a death march.
  5. Generally, the third quarter of the race is the most difficult.  If you can dedicate most of your energy to a solid 3rd quarter, you’ll generally do well.  The first half is (relatively) easy because you have a lot of energy and low levels of fatigue.  By the time the third quarter rolls around, you’re getting tired and the finish line is nowhere in sight.  I’ll post on this soon, but feelings of pain and fatigue are really just signals from your brain to ensure that you don’t hurt yourself.  There is always extra gas in the tank, which is why the final stretch of the race is where you can find that massive sprint.

Cadence is fun to review on this chart as well.  Take a look at it and comment on any patterns you see.  My next post will analyze how cadence and stride length interact on fresh vs. fatigued legs.

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