Pacing is such a familiar part of the sport of running that it’s often taken for granted. Few runners spend much time thinking about pacing. Not coincidentally, most runners also aren’t very good at pacing. The purpose of this article is to explain what pacing is. Having a clear understanding of this vital running skill will aid your efforts to master it. Sound good? Terrific! Let’s get started.
Imagine you are standing before a ditch. On the other side of the ditch is a piping hot burrito, and you happen to be quite hungry. Thus, you feel strongly incentivized to leap the ditch. The only problem is that the ditch is wide enough that you’re not certain you can make it to the other side. Should you risk it or should you not?
In this hypothetical scenario, your ultimate decision on whether to jump is based on internal knowledge of your leaping ability, particularly the limit of your jumping range. Pacing is very much the same. During each race, runners continuously, tacitly assess the sustainability of their present effort. These assessments are made against internal knowledge of the runner’s personal limit, which exactly parallels the knowledge of your personal leaping ability that you draw upon in deciding whether to attempt to jump the ditch. In other words, pacing is just another way in which humans regulate goal-directed behavior based on internal knowledge of their physical limits.
The difference is that one’s limit is far less clear-cut in a running race than it is in a ditch jump. In the latter scenario, you get one shot, and either you can or you can’t bridge the gap. But a marathon consists of approximately 55,000 small leaps, and to achieve the goal of covering the full distance in the least time possible, every single one of these 55,000 baby jumps must be paced in a manner that contributes to this goal. Nevertheless, the formula for success is the same. Whether you’re trying to leap a ditch so you can gobble a piping hot burrito or you’re trying to complete a marathon in the least time possible so you can brag about it on Strava, success results from being right about your physical limit.
Now you see why most runners aren’t very good at pacing. Yet some runners are really good at it, able to finish every race knowing they couldn’t have gone any faster with alternative pacing decisions. What makes these runners different? In my experience, pacing masters are more focused and mindful in assessing the sustainability of their present effort. All runners are conscious of their effort level when running, but whereas most runners have a passive relationship to this sensation, pacing masters actively study their effort perceptions, and they do so not just here and there but consistently, and as a result they get better and better at interpreting what they are feeling, and their intuitions about how sustainable their efforts are become more and more accurate.
To some runners, this explanation is highly unsatisfying. They want the secret to better pacing to be some simple hack or device feature that essentially takes the responsibility of making good pacing decisions off their shoulders. Instead, what I’m telling you is that pacing masters “just know” whether to speed up, slow down, or hold steady based on what they’re feeling. If I could give you a more satisfying explanation of what it takes to pace effectively without lying to you, I would. But the cold, hard truth is that everything you need to know to pace yourself effectively is contained in your effort perceptions, and there is no substitute.
The good news is that runners don’t fall into ditches when they make pacing errors. The difference between pacing masters and other runners is not that pacing masters are incapable of pacing errors. Rather, it’s that they learn more from their errors because they are paying closer attention to what they’re doing. That’s why it’s so important to be focused and mindful in studying your effort perceptions during races and hard workouts. Doing so stimulates conditional learning, enabling you to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over. How does a runner “just know” to back off their pace just a hair 8.2 miles into a half marathon? Because they have experienced a similar level of effort before with about 4.9 miles of running left ahead of them and it didn’t turn out well, and on a visceral level they never forgot it.
Understand that there is seldom any conceptual thinking involved in such decisions, much less calculation. The knowledge you’re using in such moments is somatic. In much the same way an experienced ditch jumper doesn’t have to measure the gap to know whether he can leap it, the mindful runner intuits the sustainability of their present effort on a largely tacit level, not by magic but simply as a result of having paid attention during thousands of past runs.
You can do this! And I’m going to help you. My new book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit will guide you step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.