Every runner knows pacing is critical. It can be the difference between a PR and a DNF. In On Pace, acclaimed running coach and author Matt Fitzgerald reveals how conventional training and device overdependence keep runners from accessing the full power of pacing.
With a mix of fascinating science and compelling stories from every corner of the sport, Fitzgerald shows that pacing is the art of finding your limit--running at a pace to finish the workout or cross the finish line completely out of gas. This quintessential running skill unlocks hidden potential and transforms your experience of the sport, enabling runners of all experience and ability levels to "run free."
Training plans for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon events will hone your pacing skill through improved body awareness, judgment, and toughness. Choose from four plans, novice to expert, for each distance. On Pace equips you mentally and physically to become a better runner, capable of knowing and executing your best effort on any given day.
Chapter One of On Pace is made available to you below.
‘‘It is a misconception to think that during evolution humans sacrificed physical skill in exchange for intelligence: wielding one’s body is a mental activity.”
—TED CHIANG, “UNDERSTAND”
Chapter 1: Why Pacing Matters
The men’s elite competition at the 2019 Berlin Marathon was not set up as a formal world record attempt. In prior years it had been, and with good success. Eight of the previous ten men’s marathon world records had been recorded in Berlin, including the existing record of 2:01:39 set by Eliud Kipchoge the year before. The marquee entrant in 2019 was Kenenisa Bekele, widely considered the greatest distance runner God ever created but who, at thirty-seven, was getting a bit long in the tooth and was three years past his last major victory. Hired pacers had been asked to take the race out at 2:55 per kilometer (about 4:41 per mile), which would yield a fast but not historically fast marathon time, close to Bekele’s personal best (PB) of 2:03:03 if sustained for the full 42.2 kilometers. Prevailing opinion in online fan forums was that Bekele himself would not only fail to sustain it but fail to finish, as he’d done in two of his last four marathons.
On the eve of the event, the soft-spoken Ethiopian told the assembled media, “Overall I have prepared well, although my training period of three months is perhaps rather short for a marathon. This was because of an earlier injury. But I am ready for Sunday and want to show what I can do.” Having followed Bekele’s career closely from the time he burst onto the international running scene with an astonishing 33-second win at the 2001 IAAF Junior World Cross Country Championships, I read more into these last few words than the more casual fan might. To me, they signaled that Bekele intended to run very fast indeed, and that he wished to show one man in particular “what he could do.”
Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele had been rivals since 2003, when the latter nipped the former by 0.35 second in a 5000-meter race in Oslo. The pair had met again nineteen times thereafter, Bekele coming out ahead in thirteen of these races but losing all four of the marathons they’d started together. Now in the twilight of his illustrious career, Bekele might have had his last chance to cross a finish line in front of his Kenyan nemesis, but taking down his world record would certainly qualify as the next best thing.
My interpretation of Bekele’s pre-race comments was validated the next morning when a small lead pack headed by a pair of striped-vested pacers passed through 5 km in 14:24, well ahead of the stated pace and precisely matching Kip choge’s split from the previous year. In the center of the scrum, a relaxed Bekele looked almost as if he were napping on his feet, waiting for the real start of the race. When you’ve watched a runner compete as many times as I’ve watched Bekele, you can tell by the subtlest cues if he’s got his best stuff on a given day, and I could tell by Bekele’s half-lidded eyes that he had good legs on this particular day, and knew it.
A shrunken lead group passed through 10 km 1 second ahead of Kipchoge’s record pace and remained a single tick to the good at the halfway point. I knew this could be no accident. Bekele was going for it! The problem, though, was that Kipchoge had sped up significantly in the second half of his record-breaking performance, and Bekele would have to do the same to snatch the coveted title from his rival. Yet Bekele continued to snooze even after the pacers peeled off, leaving him with only a pair of less heralded compatriots to share the work, and by the time they reached 25 km, the Ethiopian trio had fallen 6 seconds behind the invisible specter of Kipchoge.
Approaching 30 km, and another 4 seconds off Kipchoge’s standard, twenty-five-year-old Birhanu Legese launched an attack of his own. Sisay Lemma covered it quickly, but Bekele was gapped. Grimacing, he locked his now wide-open eyes on Legese’s back like the threat it was, skipping his next drink bottle to save the fraction of a second that grabbing it would have cost him, but it was no use. The aggressor continued to pull away, shaking off Lemma within a few blocks on his way to passing 35 km with a 13-second advantage on the greatest of all time.
The thing is, Bekele hadn’t actually slowed down. In fact, he hit 35 km having recorded his own fastest 5K split of the day, and the grimace was gone.
A nervous glance back from Legese affirmed what, by then, Bekele already understood—the younger man was faltering. Bekele came after him like an assassin. Alone in my home o.ce in California, I began to holler at my computer screen.
Just past 37 km, Bekele overtook Legese with brutal authority, as though the would-be usurper were already forgotten, which in fact he was. Back on world record pace, Bekele was now chasing someone else, present but unseen.
The next 12 minutes were as thrilling as any athletic spectacle I’ve witnessed. A famously beautiful runner, Bekele ran more beautifully than I could ever hope to describe in those last few solitary minutes on Berlin’s Teutonically perfect streets, his trademark sprinter’s back kick in full effect, head rocking ever so slightly in small concession to fatigue, checking his watch frequently, as though he heard the television commentators raving about how close it was going to be.
More than beautiful, Bekele’s self-sacrificial charge to the finish line was heroic, the stuff of legend, an aging champion’s all-costs bid to etch one last triumph into his legacy. Bekele shot through Brandenburg Gate at 2:00:39 on the race clock, leaving precisely 1 minute to close the deal. The crowd waiting on the other side went berserk. Wincing with effort, Bekele tried to accelerate but couldn’t, for he was already sprinting and had been for some time. The video feed now switched to a camera stationed behind the finish line. I saw Bekele grinding. I saw the clock, ticking up, counting down. It was impossible to judge the distance. Could he do it? 2:01:31, 32, 33 . . .
Two seconds. He missed by 2 seconds! That’s 0.02 percent. Yet Bekele was far from disappointed by the oh-so-near miss. “I knew I was very close to the record but I couldn’t quite make it,” he told reporters at a post-race press conference. “Before the race, I did not expect a world record, so I am very happy to take 80 seconds off my personal best.”
As a fan of elite running, I love this performance for its poetry and drama. But as a coach, I see it as the epitome of skillful pacing.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL RUNNING SKILL
Pacing is the art of finding your limit. Harder than it looks, this quintessential running skill is supported by three key aptitudes: body awareness, judgment, and toughness.
Body awareness (or what scientists call somatic awareness) relates to a runner’s feel for her performance limits. Although pacing can be assisted by objective data (as evidenced by Bekele’s frequent watch glances), it is done mainly by feel. All competitive runners share a common goal of reaching the finish line in the least time possible. Throughout each race, a single question looms: Can I sustain this effort level for the remaining distance? The answer comes not in the form of numbers or words but as perceptions, a continuous evaluation of present levels of effort and fatigue in relation to past experience. That same looming question could also be formulated this way: Am I feeling how I should be feeling at this point of the race?
Some runners are better than others at reading these perceptions, and Bekele showed exquisite sensitivity to his limits in Berlin, most obviously when he held steady instead of answering Legese’s attack, but not only then. When Bekele said after the race that he did not expect a world record, I took him at his word. Why, then, did he start the marathon smack on record pace? Because every pacing master knows better than to allow expectations to rule his performance. Goals and expectations provide a good starting point for successful race execution, but that’s all they do. When the gun goes off and you start moving, you need to be willing and able to adjust your effort appropriately based on external conditions and also on disparities between how you expected to feel and how you actually feel.
For the runner, such adjustments can go in either of two directions. While it’s more common to sense the need to dial back one’s effort from the expected or desired pace in response to adverse conditions or shaky legs, there are occasional, special races in which the perceptive runner discovers that he is capable of something remarkable, as Bekele did in Berlin. But a single early adjustment is not enough. Optimal pacing is a matter of incessant fine-tuning, as Bekele demonstrated in taking full advantage of the opportunity he discerned when he came out the other side of his rough patch.
Which brings us to judgment. Bekele’s decision to let Legese and Lemma get away from him between 30 and 37 km was just that: a decision, and one that not every runner would have made. In his post-race remarks, Bekele revealed that his left hamstring had tightened up when he’d tried to answer Legese’s surge, hence the grimace. Although frustrated by the ill-timed anatomical malfunction, Bekele knew better than to resist it, so he shifted his focus from staying with the leader to limiting his losses and remaining in a position to take advantage of Legese’s faltering, should it happen. And it did happen, because Legese had made a mistake—specifically, a pacing mistake—in surging too hard too early in the race. In fact, he wound up finishing more than a minute behind his elder.
To fully capitalize on the opportunity his body awareness and judgment had created, Bekele needed to exercise the third key aptitude for pacing mastery: toughness. Most runners are tough, but Bekele demonstrated a rare kind of toughness in going after Kipchoge’s world record in the “I-don’t-care-how much-it-hurts” manner that he did. There is no way to objectively measure how hard one is trying in a race. A runner might feel she tried as hard as she could in a race only to plunge even deeper into the pain cave in the next one, when perhaps there’s more at stake. In running, the limit is always mental, the pain tank always filling before the gas tank empties, and the tougher a runner is, the closer she can get to her unreachable physical limit before she hits her invisible, but no less real, mental limit.
In addition to showing us what good pacing looks like, Bekele’s stunning return to glory in Berlin teaches us how much good pacing matters. At the professional level today, even the marathon is a game of seconds. As painful as it must have been for Bekele to fall 2 measly seconds short of setting a world record, I doubt he was able, in looking back on the race, to come up with a single alternative tactical decision that would have gained him the mite of time he needed to make history. Which is my point—that it is possible to become so good at pacing that you can’t find one solid reason to think you could have done even 0.02 percent better.
I used to coach a runner named Chris whose personal-best marathon time prior to hiring me was 3:13. When it came time for his next marathon, Chris was in 3:05 shape, but he ended up running 3:08 after having completed the first 20 miles at 3:02 pace and then blowing up. As a general matter, I am happy with an athlete’s race performance whenever the athlete himself is happy, but in this case, I must admit I was a little unhappy when, after having wasted roughly 3.2 percent of his fitness, Chris texted me to say he felt good about losing “only a few minutes” in the last few miles.
“A few minutes!” I wanted to reply (but didn’t). “Is that your idea of good pacing?”
HOW I CAME TO KNOW THE POWER OF PACING
My earliest memory of running “long distance” dates back to 1978, when I was seven years old and living with my family in the deep woods of Hillsboro, New Hampshire. My dad, who at that time ran for fitness (he would later become a marathoner), owned a cool little gadget that he would hook to the waistband of his shorts and use to measure distance when he “jogged” (his word). This pedometer, as it was called, looked like a cross between a compass and a pocket watch and made a satisfying clicking sound with each stride. I had no particular interest in jogging at that age, but I was very interested in Dad’s pedometer, so I took it for a test drive one day, clicking off a full mile (assuming the thing was accurate).
By the age of twelve, under my father’s continued influence, I was running regularly, using a cheap children’s sports watch to measure time and using various landmarks—mapped out with the aid of the family’s Renault odometer—for distance. Numbers weren’t the be-all and end-all of the running experience for me, but I liked how they gave purpose to it. A soccer player as well, I saw times and distances as being roughly equivalent to the tally of goals and assists I kept as a striker for the Bobcats of Oyster River Middle School.
In high school, having been forced to quit soccer after I suffered a catastrophic knee injury during a game, I ran cross country and track. Our team’s bread-and-butter track workout during the outdoor season was 12 × 400 meters at roughly 1-mile race pace. My teammates and I made a game of it, each runner taking his turn leading a lap, at the completion of which the others tried to guess the time. We got so good at the game that the winning guess was seldom more than a few tenths off in either direction.
More than a decade later, at twenty-eight, I ran my first half marathon in runway-flat Phoenix. In addition to the usual awards for overall and age-group placement, a prize was given by the race organizer to the runner who came closest to correctly predicting his or her finish time. I reckoned I was fit enough to average 6:00 per mile, which would yield a finish time of 1:18:39. To take a bit of pressure off myself, I rounded up to 1:19:00, which was unfortunate because my actual time of 1:18:46 would have earned me a gift certificate from a local running specialty shop.
A short time later I started coaching other runners. Like a lot of new coaches, I took my own depth of experience for granted initially. Forgetting I hadn’t always known how to pace my running effectively, I was surprised by the kinds of mistakes my clients made. The biggest one I saw was getting stuck in what I call the moderate-intensity rut—doing way too much training in the no-man’s land between easy and hard. I’ve since become known for advocating an “80/20” training method, where 80 percent of training is consciously performed at low intensity and the rest at moderate to high intensity.
I also saw plenty of clients making the same mistake that Chris made in his marathon: bad pacing. It’s really two mistakes in one, both of which are reflected in his example. The first is poor execution, as evidenced by Chris’s hot start and late-race unraveling. The second is failure to value pacing properly, as revealed by the way Chris shrugged off the loss of “a few minutes” in our post-marathon debriefing. Imagine a boxer shrugging off having taken a few extra punches to the head that might have been avoided with more vigilant defenses, or a golfer shrugging off a few quadruple bogeys that might have been avoided with more careful club selection!
COMPETE AT YOUR FULL POTENTIAL
Pacing is everything in competitive distance running. I mean it: everything. It is the sport’s defining characteristic—the singular quiddity that makes distance running different from all other sports and exercise activities, including other forms of running. Take sprinting. The word “sprint” is used rather loosely in colloquial speech, but the true definition of a sprint is a race that is performed at maximal effort from start to finish, which is to say without pacing. By this standard, there is no such thing as a sprint that lasts longer than 45 seconds, give or take, because it is not physically possible to sustain a maximal effort longer than approximately 45 seconds. It is pacing that distinguishes a distance event from a sprint (a race that lasts longer than a maximal effort can be sustained from a race that doesn’t). At the other extreme is jogging, or running for exercise, as my dad used to do in his pedometer days. Jogging is also a form of running, but we don’t lump it together with the sport of distance running any more than we do
sprinting. The difference again is pacing. In this case, whereas the noncompetitive jogger is just trying to fill a certain amount of time with healthy exertion, the competitive distance runner is trying to cover a fixed distance in the least time possible, an objective that demands skillful pacing.
Naturally, some competitive runners are more serious than others, but every runner should take pacing seriously and seek to master the skill. It’s a very differ ent sort of commitment than spending thousands of dollars on gear or working out twice a day every day. You don’t have to carve out extra time or accept a higher risk of injury to get serious about becoming a pacing master. Like a boxer staying vigilant in his defenses or a golfer taking pains to always select the right club for the next shot, a runner should make every reasonable effort to ensure bad pacing doesn’t needlessly limit their improvement. Do you really want to run slower race times than you could just because you can’t be bothered to master your sport’s most fundamental skill? I didn’t think so!
For me, though, pacing’s importance goes even deeper. I see it as a democratizing element of our sport. There’s nothing you can do about your talent. Whatever genes you were born with, those are the genes you have to work with. But pacing skill is a completely different matter that depends on body awareness, judgment, and toughness—qualities that aren’t affected one way or the other by innate ability. Sure, Kenenisa Bekele happens to have all of these things, including raw talent, in abundance, but there are plenty of runners with far less talent who possess just as much of the other three qualities. Indeed, there’s no reason the slowest runner in a given race can’t be the best pacer. Nor is there any reason you can’t find the absolute limit of your potential by mastering the skill of pacing.
Every runner stops getting faster at some point. But pacing is something that any runner can get better at indefinitely, which is kind of cool. No matter how well you executed your last race, there’s always a chance you can do even better the next time. So if you’re the kind of runner who likes to improve, know that pacing is the one part of running you can improve in for as long as you choose to run. I’ll give you an example from my own running. In March of 2020 I returned home to California from a trip to Atlanta with an infection that I later discovered was COVID-19. I was sick for an entire month and lost a ton of fitness.
When I was finally well enough to run again, I decided to participate in a virtual marathon that was then just six and a half weeks away. I knew I couldn’t attain peak fitness in such a limited amount of time, but I was curious to see how much progress I could achieve by making full use of my decades of experience.
In a normal training cycle, by the time race day comes around I have a good feel for how fit I am and what sort of performance I am capable of, so I know how to pace myself. But this was not a normal training cycle. As experienced as I was, the situation I found myself in as I approached the Rambling Runner Virtual Marathon was novel in many respects. I wasn’t sure how fit I was, and I could only guess how fast I was ready to run. But there’s a difference between uncertainty and utter cluelessness, and my forty-five-day buildup gave me enough clues to enable me to set a goal that, while not as sure a bet as my typical race goal, wasn’t completely arbitrary either. The plan I came up with was to run the first 10K at 6:49 per mile (setting myself up for a sub-3-hour finish, barring disaster), then reassess and go from there.
I started out a little hot, completing the first mile in 6:44. Had I truly known that 6:49 per mile was the fastest pace I could sustain for the full marathon distance, I would at that point have made the necessary correction. But my body was telling me something else, and having completed more than fifty marathons, I knew I could trust it. Long story short, I went on to complete the marathon in 2:54:42, averaging 6:40 per mile for the full distance. My half-marathon splits were 1:27:51 and 1:26:41. My last two full miles were my fastest, but not by much—6:29 and 6:31—indicating nearly flawless pacing. I neither ran out of gas before I finished, nor finished with gas left in the tank, but instead ran out of gas as I finished.
It wasn’t my fastest marathon, but it was perhaps my most satisfying. In the final analysis, the time on the clock means nothing. What matters is how you got there. How closely does that time match the best you could have done with perfect execution, including flawless mastery of the pacing process? When I ran my lifetime-best marathon in Chicago three years earlier, I finished knowing I could have gone a little faster. But when I completed the Rambling Runner Virtual Marathon alone in my quiet suburban neighborhood, I did so knowing I had realized very nearly 100 percent of my potential on the day, and it felt fantastic. And I want you to experience that same feeling.