Pacing is the art of getting to the finish line of a race in the least amount of time possible given the current state of your body (fitness and fatigue levels, etc.) and external conditions. Generally, this requires that you distribute your effort quite evenly throughout the race and that this evenly distributed effort leave you tired enough in the approach to the finish line that you are able to speed up a little but not much.
It has been my observation as a coach that most runners aren’t very good at pacing. Knowing a thing or two about the science of pacing, I am not surprised by the pervasiveness of this weakness. There is no test, calculator, or device that can tell a runner how to pace a race optimally. Pacing is and always will be a form of guessing based on subjective perceptions. Specifically, pacing entails using perception of effort, or your global sense of how hard you are working, to adjust your speed so that, at every moment throughout a race, you feel you are running at the highest speed you can sustain to the finish line. In other words, pacing is a skill that requires you to interpret a feeling (perception of effort) through the lens of external information (your conscious knowledge of how far away the finish line is) to make a prediction (whether you can sustain your current speed to the finish line) that could yield disastrous consequences if it is even slightly inaccurate. Not easy.
Like all skills, though, pacing ability can be improved. As a coach, I try to help my athletes become better pacers by incorporating simple pacing games into their workouts. Each of these exercises offers an opportunity to practice linking perception of effort with external measures, which is the essence of the skill. Give them a try!
Turn on the autosplit function on your running watch so that you are notified when you’ve completed each mile (or kilometer) of a run and the time is captured. Throughout your low-intensity easy runs and long runs, when you hear your watch beep to signal a completed mile or kilometer, try to guess your split time to the exact second before you look at the display. If you do this consistently, making it a habitual component of every low-intensity run, you’ll get really good at it.
In workouts that feature intervals or repeats of a uniform distance, try to run precisely the same time (down to the tenth of a second in shorter intervals) in all of them. For example, suppose your workout comprises 6 x 1 mile at 10K race pace with 1:00 rests between repeats. If you happen to run the first mile in 6:22, do your best to run each subsequent mile in 6:22 also. Obviously, to get the desired training effect from such a workout, it’s enough to just be in the right ballpark with your interval times. But by raising your standard of consistency, you will get a second benefit from the workout, which is improved pacing ability.
Cutdown intervals are intervals of a uniform distance or duration in which you try to run each one a little faster than the one before. Cutdown interval workouts that feature a large number of intervals offer an excellent opportunity to refine your control of effort.
One such workout, which I learned from HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario, consists of 10 x 1:00 uphill, where you are required to cover more distance in each rep than you did in the one before, finishing with an all-out effort. Obviously, you could cheat by walking the first rep, then speed-walking the second, and so forth. But the idea is to do the first rep at an honest effort that leaves just enough room to increase your effort nine notches more through the remainder of the session.
When I do this workout, I carry an extra pair of socks. At the instant I complete the first 1:00 hill repetition, I toss down a sock as a marker. In the next rep, I toss down the second sock, hoping to get about 10 feet beyond the first sock when a minute is up. Then I pick up the first sock while jogging back down the hill to my starting point, and so on.
Research suggests that all runners get better at pacing automatically through the process of accumulating training and racing experience. Indeed, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to mastering the skill of pacing. However, you will improve more quickly if your consciously and routinely practice your pacing through games like those I just described than you will if you just train without ever really thinking about pacing.