Recently my friend and fellow running coach (and distant relative, I can only assume) Jason Fitzgerald interviewed me for his Strength Running podcast. We had a fun conversation about pacing, which is the subject of my latest book, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit. There was one moment, however, that caused me some chagrin, and that’s when Jason said that he advises runners to use shorter races as opportunities to work on pacing, and to participate in such events more frequently than they otherwise might for this express purpose.
Mind you, I was chagrined by this statement not because I didn’t agree with it but because I did. You see, I should have included the same advice in my book, but I didn’t think to, and now it’s too late. Oh, well. C’est la vie. This happens with all my books, so I’m not about to go jump off a bridge. The only way to avoid the pinch of regret I experience when I think of something else I should have included in a book that has already been printed would be to stop learning about the relevant subject the moment the book is completed, and frankly, I’d rather keep learning and live with the regret.
Thank goodness for this blog, though. In the spirit of “better late than never,” it gives me a forum to say the things I should have said before. Already I have used this post to pass along Jason’s tip on using short races as pacing practice, and I will now describe a workout that serves the same function in a different way, and is also not included in ON PACE. I call it the lock-in tempo. Intriguing name, no? Let’s have a look at it.
The defining quality of skillful pacing is consistency. While perfect consistency is neither possible nor desirable in race situations, it is generally case that the more evenly a runner distributes their effort over the course of a race, the sooner they reach the finish line. That’s because the relationship between intensity and fatigue is nonlinear, such that every time a runner strays above the highest intensity they can sustain for the full race distance, they hasten their body’s approach to exhaustion. Hence, pacing skill development is largely about learning to maintain a consistent effort when running. And that is the purpose of the lock-in tempo workout.
There are two versions, an introductory version for less skillful pacers and an advanced version for those who are already pretty decent at pacing. Let’s start with the introductory version. Step one is to set your device to automatically capture a time split every 0.1 mile or 100 meters—far more frequently than you normally would. Choose a flat route, warm up, and then accelerate to your lactate threshold pace, which is the fastest pace you could sustain for one hour in a race. Your goal is to cover every 0.1 or 100 meters in exactly the same amount of time for the entire tempo segment, which can last anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. Of course, you are not allowed to look at your device except when it beeps to signal the completion of another segment. The less variation there is in your splits (and you should aim for accuracy to the tenth of a second, not merely to the second), the better you are at maintaining a consistent pace by feel.
The advanced version is the same in every way except that the run is performed on a route with rolling hills. Although in a race you would not want to maintain a perfectly steady pace on such a route, attempting to do so in training offers a great test of pace control. If you happen to own a run power meter, you can instead try to maintain a steady power output over rolling hills, which is closer to how you would execute a race.
I doubt this is the last new pacing skill development workout I will devise. Variation is the point, after all, because like other skills, pacing skill improves most rapidly when you challenge it in novel ways. But while you wait for me to concoct another new run format to try, pick up a copy of ON PACE, which, although it doesn’t contain everything, does include a wide variety of pacing skill development workouts and other methods that will help you become a better pacer.
“Life is full of little ironies,” he said.
This wry observation was spoken by my father during a recent phone conversation between us. He’d called me to inquire about my health and to ask how my newly released book ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limitwas doing so far. The irony he pointed out was that, despite their disparateness, the two subjects—the state of my body and the status of my book sales—shared a common theme, which was pacing itself.
When runners think of pacing, they think of the skill they use to find the right intensity in workouts and to reach the finish line in the least time possible in races. Scientists define this form of pacing as “the goal-directed distribution and management of effort across an exercise bout,” and in my book I offer this less formal definition: “the art of finding your limit.” So, what does pacing have to do with health?
Fair question. I saw no connection between effort distribution and physical well-being either, until I developed long covid, a chronic illness that affects a small percentage of COVID-19 survivors. Long covid is a type post-viral syndrome that closely resembles chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. Although some people do recover from CFS/ME, at least partially, there is no cure and there aren’t many treatments. Indeed, the primary treatment for CFS/ME—and now also long covid—is (you guessed it) pacing!
According to the MEpedia website, this therapeutic form of pacing “is an activity management strategy to helpME/CFS patients limit the number and severity of relapses while remaining as active as possible. First described by health psychologist Ellen Goudsmit in 1989, it gives patients the advice to: ‘do as much as you can within your limits’. Pacing recognizes research showing an abnormal metabolic and immunological response to exercise in ME/CFS and offers patients a middle ground between post-exertional malaise and the negative consequences of inactivity.”
The differences between these two forms of pacing—the one runners do and the one chronic illness sufferers do, or as I like to call them, micropacing and macropacing—are obvious. If you push too hard too early in a marathon, for example, it’s game over (with rare exceptions). Having depleted your immediate energy stores, you can’t possibly replenish them in time to salvage a good race. With CFS/ME and long covid, however, you’ve got the rest of your life to bounce back from the often devasting consequences of doing too much (days or weeks of near-total incapacitation) and try again.
The similarities between micropacing and macropacing, though, are not to be overlooked. Both skills are cultivated through experience, for which there is no workaround. Simply stated, trial-and-error is the only way to get better at either. As I often say with regard to running, “The road to pacing mastery is paved with running mistakes,” and I can tell you from bitter experience that the same is true of macropacing.
I was a very slow learner when it came to pacing longer races. I was reduced to walking in each of my first two marathons, lost more than a minute in the closing miles of my third, and didn’t really nail my marathon pacing until ten years after my debut. So, I should not be surprised that I’m also proving to be a slow learner with respect to pacing for health. The biggest mistake I made in the first 18 months with long covid was failing to respect that mental exertion is still exertion. As an athlete, I was quick to recognize the necessity of curtailing my physical activity, but instead of conserving the energy spared by this concession I redirected much of it into my work as a writer, coach, and entrepreneur. The result was that my body forced me to slow down in general by ceasing to function. In particular, the symptom that many of us covid long-haulers refer to as “brain on fire” made it impossible for me to work, regardless of will.
The other big mistake I’ve made is getting greedy during periods when I’m feeling and functioning getter. It reminds me of something my wife, who has bipolar disorder, used to do. When she was going through a rough patch, she dutifully resumed taking the medication she’d been prescribed. Months later, feeling better, she stopped taking it again, thinking she didn’t need it anymore, only to come crashing down. Similarly, when I’m doing poorly, I slow down. After taking it easy for a while, I feel somewhat better, so I start doing more—a lot more oftentimes. It’s more than I can handle, and as a result I come crashing down, just like my wife. Indeed, as I write these words, I feel like death warmed over, having ridden the wave of a recent remission in my symptoms by launching myself back into the work I love.
That’s bad pacing! But I figured out the marathon eventually, and I’m confident I’ll get better at pacing long covid too. It sucks to be unhealthy, but I must say there is a compensatory satisfaction in embracing the irony of depending now for my very well-being on a skill that I previously took such great satisfaction in developing as an athlete.
On June 6, 2021, Sifan Hassan of The Netherlands smashed the women’s 10,000-meter world record in the Dutch town of Hengelo, besting Ethiopian Almaz Ayana’s mark of 29:17.45 by more than 10 seconds. Two days later, the Ethiopian Olympic Trials Women’s 10,000m was held on the same track. Nobody expected the record to go down again, least of all because the fastest runner in the race, Letesenbet Gidey, had a PB of 30:21—a full 75 seconds slower than Hassan’s time. Nevertheless, those fancy blue Wavelight LED’s that show world-record pace were activated, just in case.
Gidey started fast, but not that fast, reaching 2000 meters in 5:54, about 5 seconds behind the lights. Her next kilometer was a mite quicker, though still slower than record tempo, leaving her another second off the mark after 7.5 laps. She held that pace through the halfway mark, hitting 5000 meters in 14:42, on pace to finish in 29:24, a virtual straightway behind the specter of Hassan. But she looked really good—about as relaxed and comfortable as she had during her earlier warm-up jog.
Gidey’s next two kilometers were her swiftest yet—each completed in 2:55—yet even this pace was fractionally slower than Hassan’s standard, leaving her fully 10 seconds behind the lights at 7K. That’s when Gidey began to accelerate, running each remaining lap faster than the one before. She covered the final 1600 meters in an astonishing 4:26, the bell lap in a brain-melting 63 seconds, and finished with a new world record of 29:01.03. Her time for the second half of the race—14:18—was the eighth fastest women’s 5000-meter time ever run!
What do we make of this performance? For me, it teaches an important lesson about pacing. Specifically, it shows that a conservative pacing strategy can also be an aggressive pacing strategy in the sense that running the first part of a race at a relatively slow pace can position an athlete to achieve a breakthrough performance for the full race distance. The reason has to do with the psychological nature of pacing and human performance limits.
You see, in sprint races, performance is directly limited by physiology (specifically, leg turnover and force application). But in middle- and long-distance running events, performance is merely constrained by physiology and is directly limited by psychology. In a properly-paced middle- or long-distance race, the runner does not encounter any kind of hard physiological limit until they are within about 30 seconds of finishing, as it is humanly impossible to sustain a maximal effort longer than half a minute, give or take. Prior to that time, the runner is deliberately running slower than she could, aiming for the fastest pace she can sustain without hitting her bodily limit before she’s within 30 seconds of crossing the finish line.
This calculated parceling of effort is done mainly by feel. Hence, a degree of uncertainty is involved in pacing. How can a runner be certain she’s riding the line, on track to complete the race in the exact least time possible for her on that day? She can’t. However, uncertainty does tend to decrease as the race unfolds. The closer the runner gets to finishing, the more confident she becomes in her pacing judgments. Shorter races are easier to pace than longer ones, after all, and longer races effectively become shorter ones as runners move through them.
Pacing is really all about belief. When a runner is certain her current effort is sustainable for the remaining distance of a race, she’s usually right, and when she’s certain it’s not, she’s also right, not for some hippie-dippy mystical reason but because such beliefs have a solid basis in perceived effort, conscious knowledge of the situation, and past experience. But because belief is not strictly tied to physiology, runners can manipulate belief independent of physiology in ways that enable them to race faster, and that’s exactly what Letesenbet Gidey did in her-record-breaking 10,000 meters.
In particular, Gidey ran the first 7K of the race at a pace that was slow enough to leave her feeling relatively good but not so slow as to put the world record out of reach. At that point, confident she could speed up, she did, but only a little, such that, after completing another lap, Gidey felt confident she could speed up a little more, which she did, and so on. The materialists in the room are rolling their eyes at this, but is my theory really so far-fetched? We have all kinds of experimental evidence that purely psychological factors affect pacing and performance. Endurance athletes are known to race faster when they are in a group, when they have a higher level of motivation before the race, and when they set a goal they believe is achievable, but just barely. The Gidey method of pacing is just one more way of improving performance through psychological self-manipulation.
I’m not suggesting that the Gidey method is the optimal pacing strategy for every runner in every race, though I push back hard against the claim that Gidey achieved what she did despite her pacing, not because of it. Folks, she covered 10,000 meters 5 seconds faster than any woman in the history of the world! How could that possibly have come about as a result of screwing up? I humbly ask you to consider experimenting with an aggressively conservative pacing strategy in an upcoming race. Here’s an example of a Gidey-style pacing plan for a runner hoping to squeak under 40:00 in a flat road 10K:
One of three things will happen if you try this experiment: 1) You will mess it up and decide either to try again or not to, 2) you will execute the plan well but decide you could have gone faster with a more traditional pacing strategy, or 3) you will execute the plan well and achieve a breakthrough performance you’re so proud of, you name your next pet Letesenbet. One thing that I can guarantee will NOT happen if you try this experiment is that you spontaneously combust and never run again. So, try it!
A few weeks ago, I invited readers of this blog to participate in what I chose to call the 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge. Here are the instructions I gave:
First, determine your average pace per mile or per kilometer in your last half marathon. Next, go for a run. After warming up, run one mile or one kilometer at half-marathon effort, aiming to nail your exact average pace from your last half-marathon without looking at your watch. Note your actual time, then send your results to me.
To my delight, many of you accepted this challenge and bravely shared your results with me. I say “bravely” because, frankly, the overall results weren’t very good. One athlete did hit their target pace on the nose, but the rest missed the mark, with most missing it by a large margin. The average discrepancy between target and actual times was 14.2 seconds per mile (8.8 seconds per kilometer), with almost everyone missing on the low side (i.e., running too fast).
Speaking from vast experience, I can assure that the most skillful pacers who took this same challenge would never miss their target by so wide a margin, not in a thousand attempts. This is important, because although runners are allowed to look at their watches when racing, external devices are of limited use with respect to the goal of getting to the finish line in the least time possible. I define pacing as the art of finding your limit, and the runners who do this most successfully in competition are the same runners who hit their target time almost exactly when doing the 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge.
Let me give you a personal example of why this is so. In 2009, I started the Silicon Valley Marathon with the goal of breaking 2:40:00. Keying off my watch, I ran the first several miles at my target pace of 6:05 per mile, but I didn’t feel as comfortable as I should have, and by 10K I knew the pace would not be sustainable for another 20 miles. So I backed off to a pace that did feel sustainable, which hovered around 6:15 per mile for the next dozen-plus miles. But with about 5 miles left in the race, I caught a second wind, and I went with it, accelerating enough to cross the finish line at 2:41:29, having averaged 6:09 per mile for the full distance. While this was shy of my goal, it was the best I was capable of that day, and there’s no way in hell I would have achieved it had I depended entirely on my watch to regulate my pacing.
So, we’ve established that pacing really matters and that most runners suck at pacing. The question, then, is how do runners develop this vital skill? The first step is intentionality. Most runners who suck at pacing just sort of vaguely hope they get better at it over time. While pacing skill does tend to improve automatically as running experience accrues, it improves much faster in those who make a conscious commitment to getting better at pacing. The nice thing about this commitment is that there’s no need to carve out extra time to practice the skill. All of the methods I use with the athletes I coach and describe in my new book, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, can be incorporated into the training you’re already doing.
Pacing skill is supported by three key faculties: body awareness, judgment, and toughness. Body awareness is needed to properly interpret the perceptions of movement, time, and effort you experience when running, so you can find your limit. Judgment is needed to make the right pacing decisions (speed up? slow down? hold steady?) as you make your way through a race. And toughness is needed to push back the limit that you seek in practicing the art of pacing.
I don’t want to give too much away here, but I will give you one example of a specific method that is useful in cultivating one of these three key faculties. I call this method stretch intervals, and they help improve body awareness. Here’s how I describe them in ON PACE:
This pacing challenge is made up of intervals of a uniform duration in which you aim to cover slightly more distance each time. For example, you might run 10 × 30 seconds uphill, completing the last rep at maximal effort and each preceding rep just a hair slower. The challenge here is to run the first rep at a high effort level that leaves just enough space for nine subsequent increases in speed. To execute this type of workout properly, you will need some way of marking the endpoint of each interval. I like to use brightly colored socks, dropping one at the finish of the first rep, dropping the other at the end of the second rep, retrieving the first on my way back to the starting point for interval number three, and so forth.
Stretch intervals improve pacing skill by challenging you to perceive tiny differences in speed and effort and to regulate your speed and effort with a higher degree of precision than you are accustomed to doing. Most runners find stretch intervals difficult both physically and mentally, yet also fun.
Half the Battle
Mastering the skill of pacing takes time. But every runner who commits to this process does improve, and has fun doing it. In this sense, runners who make the commitment are already halfway there, and miles ahead of those who continue to just sort of vaguely hope they get better at pacing. Are you ready to commit? Purchase your copy of ON PACE here, or read a free sample chapter.
In a recent post of mine—one that, like a number of my recent posts to this blog, dealt with the subject of pacing in running—I concluded with the following observation: “A masterful pacing performance like Scott Fauble’s 2:08:52 finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, which he achieved with dead-even 1:04:26 first- and second-half splits, are as marvelous to behold as a perfect golf shot, and the science behind such feats is truly mind-blowing.”
As a writer, I am endlessly surprised by the things certain readers get hung up on, and I was more than a little surprised that a few readers got really hung up on the above-quoted sentence. One commenter labelled the statement “controversial,” adding, “No way even split in Boston is optimal.” Another asserted that “even splits may very well be the scientifically ideal way to run a race but it’s just common sense that that isn’t the case with a hilly course.”
I’d like to take this opportunity to address these criticisms, not for the sake of winning an argument but to help runners like you better understand the important skill of pacing. Now, I will concede that I probably should have given an example of masterful pacing that was less vulnerable to being challenged than Scott Fauble’s even-split Boston Marathon, especially given that my purpose in adducing this example was not to provide empirical support for my main argument but simply to convey my appreciation for the beauty of expert pacing. But I chose Scott for a reason, and I stand by my claim that his pacing performance at this year’s Boston Marathon was masterful.
What made it masterful? First, as his 5K split times throughout the race attest, Scott avoided “bad” miles—those throwaway slow miles that have an outsized negative impact on finishing times. On all marathon courses, both flat and hilly, the runners who run the fewest miles at a pace that is slower than their average pace for the race as a whole come closest to winning at the end. While it is not optimal to be rigidly consistent with pace in a topographically interesting marathon like Boston, statistical analyses of pacing data from the Boston Marathon have shown that the least consistent pacers fare the worst, not just generally but also with respect to their own historical standards, and the most consistent pacers fare the best. Scott is now the fifth-fastest American finisher of the Boston Marathon in history, and he owes it partly to his choice and ability to pace the course with remarkable consistency.
The second reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is that he moved up from 22nd place at the halfway point of the race to 7th place at the finish. All of the fifteen athletes Scott passed in the second half ran positive splits (meaning their second half was slower than their first), in contrast to Scott’s even splits. I’ll delve deeper into the specifics of the Boston Marathon course profile in a minute, but the point to be made here is that, when my Facebook friends say that even splits in Boston are not optimal, what they are inferring is that a positive-split pattern is preferable in this particular event because the second half of the course features more climbing and less descending than the first. But if we accept this definition of “optimal,” then the fifteen runners Scott passed in the second half of the race did it “right” and Scott did it “wrong.” Which is absurd!
The third reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is the way he finished. I know Scott well, having trained with his team for thirteen weeks in 2017. He’s as tough as they come, and can dig deeper than just about anyone else in any race. Watching his beautifully ugly stretch run down Boylston Street put a lump in my throat, for it was clear he was digging as deep as he ever had, carving himself hollow in the hope of catching one more runner (the fading Albert Korir of Kenya—another positive splitter—who finished just two seconds in front of Scott) before it was too late. Try as he might, though, Scott wasn’t really able to kick per se, or lift his pace much at all, as far as I could discern. But he didn’t lose steam either, as Korir and the fifteen runners he’d overtaken had done.
This is the part of pacing skill that can’t be measured. If thirty-plus years as a runner and twenty-plus years as a coach and student of the sport have taught me anything, it’s that, when a runner is giving absolutely everything he has to give in the last part of a marathon and he neither speeds up (much) nor slows down in relation to the entire rest of the race, that runner his paced himself masterfully.
Grab some popcorn, I’m just getting warmed up.
Now, to the course. Much is made of how much tougher the second half of the Boston Marathon course is than the first half. Too much. Both halves are net downhill, with the first 22 kilometers dropping 72 meters and the last 20.2 kilometers dropping an additional 61 meters. Both halves feature uphill portions that go against the overall altimetric trend, although the lion’s share of the elevation gain does fall in the second half. So, while the second half is indeed tougher than the first, it’s not drastically so. When I emailed Scott Fauble to request his take on Boston, he said that, for an elite male racer like him, an even-split race like the one he ran equates to a 20- to 30-second negative split on a flat course like Berlin’s or Chicago’s. In other words, for a sub-2:10 guy, the second half of Boston’s course is 20 to 30 seconds slower than the first. That’s it.
I think most of Scott’s fellow elite Boston veterans would agree with this assessment, and if they’re right, then given what we know about optimal pacing in flat marathons, running even splits in Boston is in fact optimal. History shows us that, on a flat marathon course, a 20- to 30-second negative splint tends to yield the best final result among elite racers. The current men’s world record of 2:01:39 was set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin in 2018. He covered the first half of that race in 1:01:06 and the second half in 1:00:03, a 33-second negative split. Logic tells us that if a 20- to 30-second negative split is optimal in flat marathons for elite racers, and if a 20- to 30-second negative split in a flat marathon is equivalent to even splits at Boston, then even splits must be close to optimal in Boston, at least for top finishers.
By now my Facebook friends are beginning to sweat a little. “One example doesn’t make a pattern!” Fair point. Even most elites run positive splits in Boston. But most elites run positive splits in every major marathon, including flat ones. That’s because most elites race for position, not for time. They stay with the lead pack as long as they can and then they blow up. Or not. The most successful elite performances in Boston, as in every other major marathon, follow an even-split or a slight negative-split pacing pattern. Forget Scott Fauble. Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston Marathon course record of 2:03:02, which I witnessed from the media center back in 2011, resulted from splits of 1:01:57 and 1:01:05. The women’s winner that year, Caroline Kilel, split 1:11:30 and 1:11:06. Even in the rare year when a runner solos to victory off the front, as Meb Keflezighi did in 2014, we see the same pattern. Meb’s splits that year were 1:04:26 and 1:04:21.
Growing desperate, my Facebook friends move the goalposts, pointing out that what’s true for elite runners isn’t necessarily true for other runners. Scott himself expressed a similar caution in our email exchange, writing, “I don’t think you should take any lessons from a pro race on pacing.” But whereas Scott was talking about the difference between racing for position and racing for time, my Facebook friends, in their desperation, are suggesting that even splitting is unrealistic in Boston for nonelite runners.
I know from personal experience that this suggestion is baloney. I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009, covering the first half in 1:19:45 and the second half in 1:59:25, finishing in 3:18:10. Oops. When I ran my fourth and final Boston Marathon ten years later, I’d figured out the race and gotten a lot better at pacing marathons generally. My splits on that occasion were 1:27:25 and 1:26:43, and I finished in 2:54:08. Hooray for me. But that’s not my point. My point is that I’m not Caroline Kilel or Meb Keflezighi—there’s nothing special about me. Any runner who is well prepared and who understands the course can pace Boston similarly and reach the finish line quicker for it.
When I asked Scott Fauble if he could have done anything differently pacing-wise in the 2022 Boston Marathon that might have gotten him to the finish line quicker, his short answer was “probably not.” His longer answer was this: “I could have gone out faster. But the danger of that in Boston is because the second half is harder you’re risking losing a disproportionate amount of time on the hills if you go over the line. And more specifically, at Boston the last 5 miles are some that you absolutely have to take advantage of so I think it’s better to hold back and make sure you still have your legs coming home.”
This, folks, is what it means to understand Boston and how to run it! My Facebook friends’ take on the race is far less nuanced. It’s basically, “First half easy. Second half hard. Even split impossible.” But where these guys see only black and white, Scott and I see shades of gray. Take Heartbreak Hill. Despite the scary name, that thing is little more than a glorified speed bump, rising 91 feet over half a mile. If not for its placement in mile 21, it wouldn’t scare anyone. Sure, it doesn’t feel like a speed bump on tired legs, but only runners who don’t come prepared or who don’t heed Scott Fauble’s advice to “hold back” are slowed much by it. In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai’s fastest 5K split of the entire race (14:12) came between 30 and 35 km, a segment of the course that covers three of the four biggest climbs, including Heartbreak. Not only was Mutai not slowed down by those ascents, he sped up on them! And again, you don’t have to be Geoffrey Mutai to glide over these hummocks. In 2019, I covered mile 21 in 6:42, just 4 seconds slower than my pace for the race as a whole.
It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post to say everything there is to say about pacing the Boston Marathon, or pacing marathons more broadly, or pacing in general. My modest goal here is to impress upon you how much more subtle and nuanced is the art of pacing than folks recognize. Squinty eyes see only dyads: fast/slow, hard/easy, up/down, first part/last part. The reality of pacing is far more textured, in multiple dimensions—kinesthetic, perceptual, affective, cognitive. My message to you is this: If you want to find yourself walking up Heartbreak Hill, listen to my Facebook friends. But if you want to finish your next race, and the one after that, and the one after knowing you couldn’t possibly have done any better, as Scott Fauble did at the 2022 Boston Marathon, then do yourself a favor and read my full take on this important topic, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. Or read this free sample chapter and then decide if I know what I’m talking about.
Think about the last race you completed. Could you have gone any faster than you did? It’s a very simple question, yet a difficult one to answer in many cases. If you committed a major error in execution, such as running an entire track race in lane three, then it’s easy to answer in the affirmative. But if you did manage to avoid obvious mistakes, it’s hard to know whether or not you might have been able to squeeze out a few more seconds. In fact, it’s impossible to know.
Why? Because an unimprovable race performance requires perfect pacing, and perfect pacing is impossible to define or measure. Pacing entails purposely holding oneself back from one’s physical limit, and it’s this gap between self-imposed limit and physical limit that makes perfect pacing undefinable and unquantifiable. A true maximal effort cannot be sustained longer than 30 seconds, give or take, so athletes aim to sustain a level of effort that will put them at their physical limit when they’re within 30 seconds of the finish line and fatigue has reduced their capacity to match the level of their chosen effort. But no athlete ever sustains a perfectly steady output in a race and it’s doubtful that a perfectly steady output is even optimal. In long races, it’s not uncommon for an athlete to go through one or more rough patches, when their perceived effort level spikes, and most experts would agree that reducing one’s effort level slightly at these times leads to a better final outcome. Furthermore, research on pacing in real-world environments suggests that the best outcomes occur when athletes are able to kick (i.e., accelerate) at the very end of the race, which indicates they could have gone faster prior to that point—a paradoxical phenomenon, as it essentially means that athletes go fastest overall when they could have gone faster prior to the homestretch. Further muddying the waters is the fact that athletes’ performance limits are mutable, varying from one circumstance to the next based on a myriad of factors affecting perception of effort. For example, athletes almost always go faster in a group than they do alone.
Despite all this complexity, we have a pretty good idea what a perfectly paced race looks like as a platonic abstraction. A graph of such a performance would consist of two lines, one flat and the other upward-sloping. The flat line represents the athlete’s output (power, rate of energy expenditure), which remains quite steady between the start and finish. The upward-sloping vector represents the athletes’ perceived effort, which rises with perfect linearity over time and peaks just as the athlete finishes. These two lines indicate that the athlete has parceled their energy efficiently throughout the race and finished with nothing left in reserve. But again, this is an abstraction, and in any given real-world case it’s impossible to know if the athlete truly paced their race perfectly.
Putting aside the unknowable nature of perfect pacing, most runners fall far short of perfection in their race pacing. This isn’t just my opinion—studies prove it. That’s why I wroteOn Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. Do you need this book? Let’s find out. To test your current pacing ability, try the following test: First, determine your average pace per mile or per kilometer in your last half marathon. Next, go for a run. After warming up, run one mile or one kilometer at half-marathon effort, aiming to nail your exact average pace from your last half-marathon without looking at your watch. Note your actual time, then send your results to me here: email@example.com by September 10th, 2022.
The 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge will operate on the honor system, so I’m trusting you not to lie or cheat. But you have little incentive do so, as no prizes will be awarded. Instead I will compile the results and share them in a future blog post, in which I will also provide tips on getting better at pacing.
Note that being able to hit a target pace accurately is not quite the same skill as being able to complete a race in the least time possible. But they’re similar enough that runners who are good at either one are almost always good at the other. Hence, if you run test mile or kilometer more than a few seconds too fast or slow, you have cause to believe you’re not pacing your races optimally and will benefit from reading and applying the methods taught in On Pace. If you prefer to skip the test and go straight to the book, you can purchase it here. And if you’re on the fence, you can read a free sample chapter here.
I enjoy seeing any sport performed at an elite level—even golf, which I’ve never played. When I tune into a television broadcast of a professional golf tournament I am amazed by the players’ control of the ball. If a caddie tells a player they’re 185 yards from the flag on their second shot of a par-four hole, chances are the player will hit the ball very close to 185 yards.
But how? Not by performing any conscious mathematical calculations, that’s for sure. Although knowing the distance to the flag is vital to hitting the ball the right distance, the rest is done entirely without mental arithmetic. Nor are external instruments involved in controlling the distance of a golf shot. If I asked you to drive your car 10.23 miles, you would succeed in driving precisely this distance by monitoring the vehicle’s trip odometer. But golfers do not rely on anything like an odometer to hit the ball a desired distance. Instead, the whole process is governed kinesthetically, which is to say, by using the subjective feelings of joint rotations and muscle contractions to manipulate the external environment.
In other words, when a caddie tells a golfer to hit the ball 185 yards, the golfer executes what feels like a 185-yard swing. A novice golfer has no sense of what a 185-yard swing feels like, and cannot perceive the kinesthetic difference between a swing that sends the ball 185 yards and one that sends it 175 or 195 yards. But through heavy repetition, golfers develop a more and more refined and accurate sense of what a swing of any given distance feels like, and develop a more and more precise ability to execute a swing that feels—and is—right. And the more gifted the player is in the areas of kinesthetic awareness and body control, the faster this learning process unfolds.
It all seems like magic to those of us who either don’t play golf or suck at it, but we all have some capacity for this kind of learning. Suppose I ask you to execute a 42 percent contraction of your left biceps. Electromyogram (EMG) sensors will allow us to measure how close you get to 42 percent of maximal contraction force on your first try. Let’s say you overshoot the mark, and are informed by the technician leading the test that you performed a 65 percent contraction. On your second try, you will consciously execute a contraction that feels somewhat less forceful than the first, and in this way you’ll get closer to the mark. With further practice, you could execute a contraction that’s very close to 42 percent of maximal—or any other percentage—every time.
In running, pacing is analogous to distance control in golf and to muscle contraction force accuracy in the hypothetical test just described. It’s just one more way of controlling one’s body in space to achieve a performance goal. To achieve the goal of completing a given race distance in the least time possible, a runner must be able to accurately tune their effort to the highest level that is sustainable for the full race distance. Just as a golfer must be able to feel what a 185-yard swing feels like, a runner must be able to feel whether they are running at the fastest pace they can sustain for the remaining distance of a race.
In my experience, most runners don’t recognize how similar pacing is to other sports skills that involve linking kinesthetic perception to objective performance. That’s one reason I wrote On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit—the debut release from 80/20 Publishing. The other reason I wrote an entire book on run pacing is that, in addition to not fully understanding what pacing really is, most runners don’t fully appreciate the importance of pacing skill.
The way I see it, there are two ways to be good at running. One is to have the physical ability to sustain a fast pace over a long distance, which comes from innate talent and proper training. The second way to be good at running is to be good at pacing. Understandably, we runners tend to focus on physical fitness, but when you think about it, fitness is nothing more than potential. To fully realize their potential, runners must pace themselves perfectly, and perfect pacing is rare and difficult. As a coach, I place great emphasis on pacing skill development, and it pays. Runners who embrace the process see significant progress and enjoy themselves along the way, and you can too, by reading On Pace, which teaches the pacing skill development program I use with my clients.
Pacing is also just plain fascinating, in my opinion. A masterful pacing performance like Scott Fauble’s 2:08:52 finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, which he achieved with dead-even 1:04:26 first- and second-half splits, are as marvelous to behold as a perfect golf shot, and the science behind such feats is truly mind-blowing. I explain this science in simple terms in On Pace, making the book as entertaining (I hope) as it is edifying and useful.
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.
In the 1990s, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers introduced the concept of extended mind, which proposes that the acts of thinking and feeling do not occur entirely inside one’s head. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it might sound plumb crazy to you, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see it actually makes a lot of sense.
Consider sheet music. Musicians use sheet music as an extension of their own internal memory capacity. Exploiting this tool requires a mind that is capable of remembering some things for itself (like how to read sheet music), but if this basic requirement is met, sheet music greatly expands the repertoire of music that a musician can perform. In this way, sheet music may be described quite reasonably as an extension of the human mind.
The operative mechanism in this example is cognitive outsourcing, or offloading a task from the brain to an external tool. Our capacity to outsource mental work, and some of the specific ways we do, have both advantages and disadvantages. I’ve hinted already at the advantages. One disadvantage is the use-it-or-lose-it factor. Take spell check, for example. My father and I, both experienced professional writers, have shared the observation that we’ve become worse spellers since the advent of spell check. We no longer have to remember how to spell, so we’ve forgotten to a degree.
As a coach, I see smart watches and other sports trackers doing something similar with respect to athletes’ ability to pace themselves. Earlier this year, I wrote about a study by a pair of Italian psychologists on device dependency in runners. In a sample of 111 athletes, these researchers observed a high level of device dependency among less experienced runners in particular. While this particular study did not delve into the practical consequences of such dependence, a new study conducted by Dutch researchers and published in the journal Sensors does.
The purpose of the experiment, as stated in the abstract, was “to explore the roles that sports trackers and running-related data play in runners’ personal goal achievement.” The subjects were 22 competitive recreational runners recruited through Strava and other online platforms. The researchers collected information about their experiences with sports trackers through a combination of interviews and diaries. Their unsurprising main finding was that the devices were used for the primary purpose of logging data for later review—a classic example of cognitive outsourcing.
Sports trackers were also broadly relied on for the regulation of pace during runs, and here’s where the problems came in. A majority of the runners reported that the devices failed to supply enough contextual guidance to allow them to completely turn over control and run on the ambulatory equivalent of autopilot. At the same time, though, in relying on their devices to a certain degree to tell them how they were doing and what to do, the runners sacrificed the self-reliance they would have needed to maintain consistent control in their relationship with their devices—unless they ignored them altogether, which in fact is exactly how some chose to resolve the conflict. “I feel horrible when seeing that I am not keeping up with a pace that I planned,” one runner said, “so I start thinking if I should push myself harder on the next kilometer or punish myself by running slow . . . So you just avoid looking at it at all and check once you’re done because it influences me in the wrong way . . . It’s just not that helpful, is it?”
The authors concluded their report of their findings by recommending improvements to sports trackers’ design and functionality. “We propose that technology developers should be aware of the psychological effects of running-related data on runners,” they wrote. “Future research could examine how sports technology facilitates ignorance of data while still informing the runner that some data are important to track and be aware of, especially when these data are of considerable importance because they relate to their goals.”
I like this direction. Sports trackers are not intrinsically helpful or harmful to athletes, but they have the potential to be both, and existing products very much are both for many athletes. The athletes who use their devices most effectively are those who remain in total control of all pacing-related decision-making, relying on them merely as a source of data that informs their choices. For them, sports trackers serve as a sensible and selectively used extension of their minds. For too many other athletes, alas, sports trackers are being used as an outright substitute for their minds, which no amount of advancement in design and functionality will ever allow them to truly be.
A few years ago, New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds penned an interesting article titled “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport.” It focused on a then-recent study by neuroscientists at the University of Arizona in which it was shown that high-level distance runners had significantly higher levels of connectivity in certain parts of the brain compared to nonrunners.
In interpreting these findings, Reynolds wrote that “running seems to be a kind of mobile math puzzle,” an idea that the study’s lead author, Gene Alexander, expanded upon, saying, “It requires complex navigational skills plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.”
If it’s true that, as this study indicates, running makes people smarter, then it must also be true that smarter people make better runners. There is no consensus definition of “intelligence” among scientists, but I like the one proposed by David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and president of the Santa Fe Institute, who has said, “Intelligence is making hard problems easy.” The reason this way of looking at the phenomenon appeals to me is that it’s inclusive and pragmatic. It recognizes that intelligence is not some global aptitude that one either has or doesn’t have but is rather a diverse collection of mental skills, which different people have in different degrees. No person is capable of making all types of hard problems easy, and very few people are incapable of making at least one type of hard problem easy.
Top athletes are among those who count as highly intelligent by Krakauer’s definition. As he explained in a 2015 interview for Nautilus, “Something that we’d find tremendously difficult—skiing downhill at a very high velocity or getting a small ball into a basket or getting a ball over a net at over 70 miles an hour, things that we struggle with . . . they make look effortless. And that’s not really that different from a mathematician effortlessly solving a theorem, or a musician remembering a symphony. The difference [exists in] the part of the brain that stores the relevant information, and for some reason when we’re talking about the motor system, it’s not intelligence. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s not exclusively human, because marine mammals make swimming look effortless. Birds make flying look effortless—we can’t do that. And surely that can’t be intelligence because we can’t do it.”
Krakauer continues, “If you reduce the theory to intelligence to, on the one hand, this notion of efficient solutions to hard problems, and simultaneously think about it in terms of the energy and resources that neurons require to solve the problem, then in fact, the motor system is arguably more intelligent than the frontal cortex.”
Long before I met David Krakauer at the 2015 Goldlab Symposium and learned about his take on intelligence, I had already become convinced that certain types of intelligence are vital to success in endurance sports. Pacing is arguably the defining mental skill in endurance racing. It is not easy to get from the start line to the finish line of a 10K or a marathon in the least time possible. While physical fitness determines the highest velocity you can sustain over a given distance on a given course on a given day, this number is fundamentally unknowable. Discovering it as you go is the job of your brain, and it is a job that most athletes suck at. Effective pacing requires intentional practice, but it’s also a matter of natural aptitude, as is the case with all mental skills. My advice to athletes is that you exploit the advantage of natural pacing ability if you have it and that you take pacing skill development more seriously than most athletes do regardless of your innate aptitude.
Pacing is one form of self-regulation. Another form of self-regulation that impacts endurance performance is restraint. All athletes understand the value of hard work, and a majority of serious racers are willing to work hard, but in my experience, relatively few of those who are willing to work hard have the restraint to consistently resist working hard when doing so is unwise. Forcing it in workouts where the target splits are out of reach, sticking to the training plan instead of dialing back in the face of excessive fatigue, grinding out the last mile of a 20-miler despite red-flag pain in your knee—such behaviors are the norm among competitive runners, not the exception.
As the saying goes, “It’s easy to train hard, but hard to train smart.” Hard trainers are a dime a dozen, but where smart training is concerned, the bar is low. This state of affairs represents a golden opportunity to gain an advantage over other athletes by taking pride in exercising restraint throughout the training process. It can be hard at first, but if you persist in the effort it can become your special thing. Instead of rushing to reclaim a Strava segment from a local rival who makes a point of taking it from you, laugh privately and take your revenge in the next race.
A third form of intelligence that aids the athlete is the ability to learn and adapt through trial and error. Athletes who are smart in this way pay attention to cause and effect in their training, figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. I can think of a number of noteworthy examples of athletes whose training evolved over the course of their careers and who performed better because of the changes they made. One example is the legendary triathlete Mark Allen, who overcame a propensity toward injury early in his career by swapping his favored low-volume, high-intensity training approach for a high-volume, low-intensity approach under the guidance of coach Phil Maffetone.
In summary, if you’re smart, take full advantage of this gift in your training and racing. And if you’re not so smart (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t so smart), emulate those who are and you’ll at least have an advantage over other not-so-smart runners who make no effort to get smarter.
Eliud Kipchoge is known chiefly for two things: winning and breaking records. He has won eleven of the twelve marathons he’s raced (finishing second in the only one he didn’t win). In 2017, he made the first formal attempt to cover the marathon distance in less than two hours, shocking the running world by coming up just 25 seconds short, and two years later he tried again and succeeded, covering 26 miles, 385 yards in 1:59:40. While this feat doesn’t count as an official marathon world record, Kipchoge owns that mark too, having clocked 2:01:39 in winning the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
In light of these facts, you might assume that Kipchoge is extremely focused on numbers and trophies, but he’s not. “I believe in a philosophy that says to win is actually not important,” he said in a 2016 speech at the Oxford Union. “To be successful is not even important.” What is important to Kipchoge is self-mastery, for which running marathons serves as a vehicle. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” he told his audience in the same address. “If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.”
When Eliud Kipchoge talks about running—not just in this instance but in general—he sounds more like a spiritual leader than some dumb jock. “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles,” is a proverb attributed to the Buddha. Substitute “marathons” for battles and you have another Kipchoge quote.
Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes.
There’s nothing unique about Kipchoge in this regard. Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes. Indeed, it’s almost impossible for a spiritually sensitive person to experience endurance racing non-spiritually, which is why spiritual leaders including Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born advocate of meditation and running influential in the U.S. in the late 20th century, have promoted it even to nonathletes. “The inner running and the outer running complement each other,” Chinmoy wrote. “For outer running, we need discipline. Without a life of discipline, we cannot succeed in any walk of life. So when we do outer running, it reminds us of the inner running.”
With the proper attitude, any activity—eating, gardening, you-name-it—can be undertaken as a spiritual exercise. But endurance racing is unique in that its spiritual aspect is almost inherent, so that even people who don’t initially pursue it for spiritual reasons end up doing so. Why is this?
Recent science guides us toward an answer to this question. It is evident to any athlete who has ever done an endurance race that the experience is challenging both physically and psychologically. In the past, exercise scientists believed that the limits athletes encountered in endurance races were physical in nature, and that the psychological challenges associated with approaching these limits were mere epiphenomena. The idea was that mechanistic factors such as lactic acid buildup in the muscles and depletion of muscle glycogen fuel stores prevented athletes from going faster and farther than they did. But we now know that this is not the case. While physical limits do exist, they merely constrain performance instead of limiting it directly. The limits that athletes encounter directly when racing are psychological.
What makes endurance racing different from sprinting is that, in a endurance race, the fastest way to get from the start line to the finish line is not to go as fast as you can. No human is physically capable of sustaining a true 100 percent effort longer than about 45 seconds. Therefore, in longer events, athletes must pace themselves, which means holding themselves back to a speed that can be sustained for the full distance. And pacing is done consciously, through a combination of cognitive and perceptual process.
In particular, pacing is a form of predictive processing, where athletes continuously estimate the highest level of output they can keep up from their current position the finish line, adjusting accordingly. These estimates are based on perceived effort (or the athlete’s sense of how hard they’re working relative to maximum), past racing experience, and conscious knowledge of the amount of distance or time remaining n the race. Relying on these cognitive and perceptual factors, the athlete seeks to avoid 1) reaching exhaustion ahead of the finish line and 2) reaching the finish line before the point of exhaustion.
It’s important to note that when athletes do miscalculate and reach exhaustion ahead of the finish line, it is seldom because they have hit a hard physical limit like glycogen depletion. Rather, it is because they have reached the highest level of perceived effort they are willing to tolerate. They may feel physically incapable of continuing, but in fact they aren’t. Carefully designed studies have demonstrated that, at the point of quitting any type of endurance test, athletes always possess reserve physical capacity.
The psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is no less real than the physical limits it protects athletes from ever actually encountering, but its nature is different. Imagine a row of weights arranged in order of increasing heaviness. Your task is to lift each weight in turn until you get to a weight that is too heavy for you to lift. When you do reach this point, there’s no doubt about it. You either can or can’t lift the next weight in the sequence.
By contrast, maximal perceived effort, similar to maximal pain tolerance, is mutable. This was shown in a study performed by Australian researchers and published in Pediatric Exercise Science in 2013. Thirteen children between the ages of nine and eleven years were asked to run an 800-meter time trial on three separate occasions. Because this was a novel distance for the kids, they were expected to improve their times over the three time trials through improved pacing strategy. And they in fact did improve, but not through improved their pacing strategy. In all three time trials, the kids started too fast, slowed significantly, and then sped up again toward the end. Their performance improved, rather, simply because they ran harder. In the first time trial, they ran as hard as they felt they could, and it hurt. But in the second one, having a bit of experience under their belts, they felt they could push a little harder and hurt a little more, and in the final time trial, knowing the second trial hadn’t killed them, they felt they could push harder still and hurt still more.
Experienced and highly motivated endurance athletes are capable of tolerating levels of perceived effort that are almost indescribably unpleasant. Because of this, and because the psychological limit of maximum tolerance for perceived effort is fuzzy, endurance athletes tend to find themselves in a special state of consciousness in the late stages of races. It’s essentially a shouting match between two distinct inner voices representing disparate aspects of the self. One voice, representing the instinctive desire to avoid discomfort that we all possess, is begging the athlete to quit, or at least slow down, while the other, representing the factors that motivated the athlete to pursue a goal that cannot be achieved without discomfort, is ordering the athlete to press on. Ambivalence occurs routinely in everyday life, but the internal dividedness athletes experience in the crisis moments of races is uniquely pure and intense.
Spirituality means different things to different people, but self-mastery is foundational to all spiritual paths. To live on a spiritual plane, whatever this may mean to you, is to live in accordance with your highest values, and this requires that you cultivate the ability to subsume your “lower” impulses to these values. In short, it requires self-mastery.
For millennia, humans have used tools such as fasting and meditation to pursue spiritual growth through self-mastery. These tools serve to foment a state of internal dividedness that presents the spiritual seeker with an opportunity to work at self-mastery. Traditionally, the inner battle that occurs during fasting or meditation is conceived of as being fought between flesh and spirit. From a scientific perspective, the battle is actually between different aspects of the mind rooted in different parts of the brain. The main battleground is an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is active in resolving ambivalence. Studies have shown that the ACC is exceptionally strong in both meditators and endurance athletes.
Both endurance athletes and meditators also score high on tests of inhibitory control, or the ability to override impulses through conscious restraint (a task that is handled by the ACC as well). Inhibitory control is not self-mastery itself, but it is one mechanism by which self-mastery operates.
Difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools
One key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery is that endurance racing is competitive. It’s tempting to assume that the competitive drive stands in opposition to spiritual experience, and it certainly has this potential. For some athletes, racing is an largely expression of ego. But for others, competitive goals are merely a pretext for pursuing self-mastery. It’s a well-proven fact that athletes are able to push harder in a competitive context than outside of it, and the harder an athlete pushes, the greater self-mastery he or she attains. This is precisely why a spiritually sensitive athlete like Eliud Kipchoge who doesn’t believe that winning is important tries so hard to win.
Another key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery relates to the role of the body. In some spiritual traditions, there is a tendency to derogate the body and instinct. One of the reasons endurance racing appeals to me personally as a spiritual endeavor is that it celebrates our embodiment and places biology and instinct in the service of the quest to live in accordance with our higher virtues. Endurance racing certainly isn’t for everyone, but as a spiritually sensitive person who enjoys having a body, I’m very glad it exists!
Many of the posts I write for this blog are inspired by athlete FAQ’s. Well, this is another one. And, quite honestly, I’m note sure why it has taken me so long to write it, because it answers one of the top three most frequently asked questions I get from runners who either have read 80/20 Running or are following one of the 80/20 training plans available on this website. I’ve already let the cat out of the bag with my title, but I will go ahead and present the question anyway:
How do I choose an appropriate goal time for my upcoming race?
Race goal setting is as much an art as it is a science. There is no infallible oracle that runners can consult to obtain a time goal they can have 100 percent confidence in. But there is a way to approach goal setting that will maximize the likelihood of your coming away from the race satisfied with your performance. Here are my tips.
I must confess that my 80/20 training system leads many runners astray with respect to race goal setting. That’s because this system is all about intensity zones, and as such it tacitly encourages runners to look at goal setting through the prism of my seven-zone 80/20 intensity scale. But as I tell every runner (and triathlete) who asks me which zone they should target for an upcoming race of a given distance, intensity zones are too coarse an instrument to be usefully applied to the precise objective of reaching the finish line of a race in the least time possible.
For example, marathon pace for me falls within Zone X (the gap between Zones 2 and 3), as it does for many runners. When I was training for the Chicago Marathon last summer, my Zone X range was 6:13-5:50 per mile. But based on my performance in training, my coach at the time, NAZ Elite’s Ben Rosario, believed my true marathon pace was precisely 6:05 per mile. It turned out he was right. I completed Chicago in 2:39:30, which averages out to 6:05.005 per mile. If instead of targeting 6:05 I had targeted Zone X, I might have run as slow as 6:13 per mile and finished the race in 2:42:59, disappointed in the knowledge that I could have gone faster, or I might have started the race at 5:50 per mile, blown up at mile 20, and failed to even finish.
Start with pace, not time
Another big mistake that runners make in setting race time goals is, well, setting race time goals. Too often runners become enamored by the idea of meeting or beating a round number or a Boston qualifying time. But these numbers are at least semi-arbitrary in the sense that, although our minds are attracted to them, or bodies do not operate by them.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming for round numbers and qualifying standards as ultimate goals, but your immediate goal for each race should be to cover the prescribed distance in the least time possible, and in approaching this goal it’s better to think in terms of pace rather than time. Ask yourself, “What is the fastest pace (either per mile or per kilometer) I can sustain over this distance?” The answer to this question should determine your time goal, not the other way around.
For example, if you believe that 6:36 per mile is the fastest pace you can sustain for 10 kilometers, then your goal time should be 41:00. The idea of “breaking 40:00” might be more attractive, but if 6:36 per mile truly is your current limit, it would be foolish to aim for that round number—yet.
Think in terms of incremental improvements.
Here’s the catch: The fastest pace that any given runner can sustain over a given distance on a particular day is fundamentally unknowable. It is not even possible after the factto determine whether a runner succeeded in complete a race in the least time possible. In light of this fact, the most useful way to aim toward completing a race in the least time possible through the goal-setting process is to try simply to improve on your own past performances at the same distance. There is no better source of information on which to base an estimate of your current capacity. The idea is to compare your current training to the training that preceded your last or best performance at the same distance to get a sense of how much faster (if at all) you’re prepared to go.
Rely on key workouts and “B” races.
Obviously, if you’re racing at an unfamiliar distance, or even if you’re racing at a distance you haven’t contested for a very long time, you can’t use the incremental-improvement approach to setting an appropriate race time goal. In this case you will need to rely instead on key workouts and on any races you do at other distances in the lead-up to your peak race. Online pace calculators can be used to generate an estimate of the time you will run at a new distance based on your performance at another distance. Be advised, though, that these calculators tend to overestimate performance at the marathon distance except in the cases of high-mileage runners (70-plus miles per week).
Any sensible training program will include workouts that target the specific intensity of your peak race. This thread of the training process should culminate in a single, peak race-pace workout that serves to dial in your goal for the upcoming race. Here are suggested formats for such workouts for the four most commonly contested race distances:
5 x 1 km @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries
6 x 1 mile @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries
8 miles @ goal pace
16 miles @ goal pace
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that your race goal should consider not only your fitness but the specific course you’ll be racing on and the conditions you anticipate racing in. For example, if you think you’re ready to run a half marathon in 1:21:30 in perfect conditions on a flat course, but you’ll be racing on a course with two big hills in 70-degree air, you’ll want to add a couple of minutes to your expected finish time.
Calculators can’t help you much here, though. What you really need to do is adjust by feel as you go. A half-marathon goal of 1:21:30 is (or should be) based on the belief that you can sustain a pace of 6:13 per mile for 13.1 miles. So what you’ll want to do in this hypothetical example is run at the perceived effort level that is associated with this pace in ideal conditions in the less-than-ideal conditions you’ll actually be racing in. In other words, slow down just enough so that your effort feels the same.
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.
With pacing, as with so many other things, experience is the best teacher. No runner wants to blow his or her race with bad pacing, but there is really no better way to get your pacing right the next time. As Mark Twain famously put it, “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.”
In the context of endurance racing, pacing can be defined as the skill of distributing one’s effort across a defined distance in such a way that the distance is covered in the least amount of time possible. Although the body does the visible work in any kind of endurance race, the skill of pacing is entirely mental. There are three distinct psychological qualities that feed into it:
Three Distinct Psychological Qualities
A certain kind of intelligence is required to comprehend abstract distances and use this understanding as a factor in implicit calculations of the fastest rate of speed the athlete can sustain over the remaining distance of a race. Any animal predator can pace itself appropriately in relation to a target it can see, but only humans have the brain power to do so in relation to targets too distant to see. And human studies have shown a clear relationship between intellectual capacity and pacing ability. Like it or not, you have to be a certain kind of smart to pace well.
Pacing is done by feel. Although speed and power meters can be used as supplemental pacing tools, perception of effort gets the first in final say in determining how quickly an athlete covers a given race distance. To pace well is to know how you should feel at any given point in a race. This is a big reason why pacing ability automatically improves with experience. A really good pacer has an incredibly high level of sensitivity to perception of effort. If you ask the typical elite runner to give you a 6:00 mile, you are very likely to get something between 5:59 and 6:01, because these athletes can feel the difference between 5:58 and 6:02.
As I suggested above, pacing decisions are the results of implicit calculations. The main inputs to these calculations are knowledge of the remaining distance and perceived effort. These two inputs are factored together in a way that is intended to ensure that the athlete does not hit his limit before he reaches the finish line. But what is the limit? Not anything physical. It is simply the athlete’s sense of what he can and cannot do. As such, the limit is mutable, labile. Two athletes of precisely equal ability may have different limits because one believes he can’t go any faster and the other does, and only the other is right. Those athletes who have the highest performance limits relative to their physical ability simply have more guts. They aren’t afraid to push a little harder and find out if they fall apart or can keep it together.
A notably large fraction of the runners I interact with as a coach struggle with (i.e., suck at) pacing, and it is my perception—true or not—that this fraction is larger than it used to be. If so, why? I think a number of factors are at play. One is that today’s adult runners tend to be less experienced in the sport, having taken it up as adults instead of in school. Another is that kids have become less active generally, hence less sensitive to and tolerant of perceived effort throughout their lives. A third factor is that modern running gadgetry distracts runners’ attention from their bodies, creating a dependency on external feedback that further numbs sensitivity to perceived effort and ties runners to artificial limits.
This last factor affects even some elite runners, as Flagstaff-based 2:32 marathoner Sarah Crouch will tell you. But Sarah also offers us a good example of how to overcome this dependency. Her case study centers on the 2018 USATF 25K Championships, held on May 12. A few days before the race, Sarah announced that she would run it without a watch, citing frustration with her recent performances (she’d completed three half marathons in 2018, all more than five minutes slower than her PR of 1:12:10, which was set back in 2014) and the need to shake herself out of the rut she’d gotten stuck in. “I feel that when I’m wearing a watch and I’m constantly looking at it,” she said in an interview on the eve of the event, “I’m far too much in my own head. So the goal tomorrow is to race just by instinct, guts.”
Intrigued by the experiment, I made sure to watch the USATF 25K Championships live on the internet, and I’m glad I did. Last year I did some training with Sarah in Flagstaff, but the Sarah Crouch I saw on my computer screen on May 12thseemed like a different woman. She ran with a striking combination of aggression and serenity, her chin up and her eyes seemingly miles up the road as she dragged eight-time national champion Aliphine Tuliamuk behind her. Incredibly, Sarah passed the half-marathon point of the race in 1:12:45 on the way to finishing the race in third place.
Afterward, I contacted Sarah with a few questions, her answers to which, I felt, would help complete the lesson of her wildly successful gamble. If you struggle with pacing, pay attention!
Q: What is the precise nature of the problem you sought to address by racing without a watch last weekend?
A: As months and then years began to pass without a personal best at any distance, I became more and more obsessed with my pace during races. This year I’ve run three half marathons, each slower than the last, and I started to feel like I couldn’t break myself of the habit of looking at the watch every few minutes. During these races, the moment that my pace began to slip even a little, I fell apart, devastated that I was unable, yet again, to clip through miles at the same rhythm I’d managed easily earlier in my career. I finally realized that this was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in my races and I was reaching a point where something had to change. Choosing to abandon my watch at the 25K was honestly just a reflection of me reaching the boiling point and trying something new out of desperation.
Q: It seems to me that, in order for your experiment to work, you needed to have just the right mindset going into the race. Is this true, and if so, how did your specific mindset set you up for success?
A: That is absolutely true. This is going to sound nuts, but I almost had to separate the two people I’d become. The part of me that was growing larger and more powerful was the part of me that didn’t want to race, didn’t want to suffer anymore and didn’t believe I’d ever see another PR after almost half a decade of disappointment. That voice in me had grown so loud that it had almost completely drowned out the other voice, the one that I could barely hear anymore, the one that was dying to be let loose and compete. That part of me used to race recklessly, unafraid of anyone, and was always in pursuit of gutsy races and the pure joy that followed at the finish line. That part of me would literally eat a bowl full of dirt to beat the person next to me at the end of a race and frankly, that part of me does not need a watch.
During my warm-up for the 25K, I made a very deliberate decision to bring that voice back to the forefront, to let it make the decisions during the race, almost giving it its own personality and the permission to guide me through the race. I had no intention of leading until the moment that the gun fired and then all bets were off. My gut not only said to lead but to push the pace and try to break apart the lead pack as soon as possible. I was about 99% sure I was running a suicidal pace but I couldn’t have cared less. For the first time in four years, I felt like meagain. Turns out, I almost had the fitness to back it up as I couldn’t match the move made eleven miles into the race, but I wouldn’t go back and change the way I ran for anything. I wouldn’t go back and sit comfortably in fourth or fifth and try to progress with 10K to go, which, on paper, may have been the smart thing to do. Sometimes you need to do the brave thing, not the smart thing.
Q: You ran faster than you had in a while. One might assume that, to do so, you had to suffer more. But was that really the case, or did your mental approach somehow enable you to run faster without feeling “worse”?
A: No, I did not suffer more, but my willingness to suffer was greater. I do think there is something to the notion of dwelling less on the pain and more on the product of it when you feel like you’re having the race of your life. Perhaps focusing on the end rather than the means is made easier when the end is decidedly worth it. I’ve described the feeling before as the fingers of human experience outgrowing the glove of human flesh. It’s incredibly difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but pain with purpose is far easier to accept than the pain that accompanies a poor race.
When your incentive to hurt is higher, it not only permits you to drag yourself deeper down the rabbit hole of pain, it adds the remarkable sensation of life, raw life, into the experience. Humming under the strain of the pace out there, I felt very aware of my surroundings, the bright green of the trees, the sound of my competitors’ shoes slapping the pavement, the scent of rain in the air. Yes, it may have hurt like hell, but I feel bad for those who have never pushed themselves past their limit to find out what was on the other side because the other side is spectacular.
Interested in learning more about pacing? 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.
If I could clone myself a few times for the sake of taking different paths in life, I would definitely dedicate one of my clones to the pursuit of sports science. This being impossible with current technology, I choose instead to live vicariously through the individual sports scientists who are tackling the questions I would be most interested in tackling if I had my own lab.
One such question (or line of questioning, more accurately) is this: If you could do only one
thing right in your training as an endurance athlete, what should it be? In other words, what is the single most beneficial training practice you could employ as an endurance athlete seeking improved performance? And if you were already doing this one thing, what then is the next most impactful method you could incorporate?
If we were to pursue this line of questioning all the way through to the end, we would end up with a sort of hierarchy of endurance training needs. How useful that would be! Well, guess what? This hierarchy already exists, created by one of my very favorite sports scientists, Stephen Seiler, who drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of research on endurance training practices to perform the exercise I just described. With a nod to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of psychological needs, Seiler’s Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs ranks eight fundamental training practices in order of proven impact. If there’s a more helpful tool for understanding the big picture of endurance training, I haven’t seen it. So, let’s go through the hierarchy (see Seiler’s own graphical summary at the end of this post):
1. Total Frequency/Volume of Training
According to Seiler, the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your performance in endurance racing is to train a lot. The fine print is that in training a lot, you must be sure not to train too much, and you can train more without training too much if you train at low intensity, so what Seiler really means here is that the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your performance in endurance racing is do a lot of low-intensity training.
2. High-Intensity Training
Although doing a lot of training exclusively at low intensity will make you fitter than doing a small amount of any other kind of training, you will get fitter still if you combine a little high-intensity training with a lot of low-intensity training. Seiler rates this fact as “well established” in the scientific literature.
3. Training Intensity Distribution
Seiler made a name for himself by discovering the 80/20 Rule of endurance training, which posits that endurance athletes improve the most when they do roughly 80 percent of their training at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent (give or take) at moderate to high intensity. So, the next most impactful thing you can do in your endurance training—if you’re already doing a lot of low-intensity training and a little high-intensity training—is to fine-tune the balance of intensities to bring your training in line with the 80/20 Rule.
Let me add here that applying the 80/20 Rule is usually the first change that I make to the training of the athletes I coach. The reason is that the average recreational endurance athlete does close to 50 percent of his or her training at moderate intensity—way too much. Training more won’t help an athlete who is caught in the moderate-intensity rut because it only exacerbates an existing problem. There is much more to be gained from redistributing the training he or she is already doing and then taking advantage of the reduced stress and fatigue levels resulting from this shift to train more.
4. General Periodization Details (Annual)
Periodization refers to the practice of evolving one’s training over the course of the year in specific ways intended to cause fitness to continually increase. Seiler rates this practice as “likely overrated.” By this I don’t think he means that training shouldn’t evolve over the course of the year but rather that the details don’t matter much. If that’s the case, then I agree wholeheartedly. What does matter is that 1) the overall training workload (which is a function of both the volume and the intensity of training) increase and 2) your most challenging race-specific workouts come later on, when your fitness is near peak levels and it’s getting close to time to race. But the relevant research has shown that within these broad parameters, different periodization practices yield similar results. In other words, where periodization is concerned, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
5. Sports-Specific and Micro-Periodization Schemes
According to Seiler, the particular ways in which endurance athletes chose to sequence workouts from day to day and week to week has a “likely modest” effect on fitness. In other words, it doesn’t matter too much whether you schedule recovery weeks every third week or every fourth week. Of course, it’s vitally important that you balance hard work and rest/recovery in such a way that your body neither accumulates fatigue over extended periods nor detrains between challenging training stimuli, but as with macro-periodization, there’s more than one way to achieve this balance.
6. Training-Stimuli Enhancement
“Training stimuli enhancement” refers to practices such as training at high altitude and training in a glycogen depleted state. Seiler believes that such things are worth doing but that the effects are “individual and condition specific.”
7. Pacing Training
Fitness is not the only determinant of race performance. To get the most benefit from any level of fitness in competition, an athlete must pace himself or herself effectively, and this objective is aided by practicing pacing in training, which may also serve to stimulate pace-specific fitness adaptations. Seiler rates this practice as “potentially decisive if everything else is done right.”
8. Training Taper
Although your fitness level won’t change much in the last week or two before a race, no matter what you do, what you do in the last week or two before a race can have a big impact on how you perform nevertheless. Tapering is the art (Stephen Seiler might say science) of altering your training prior to competition to ensure that you’re rested—but not too rested—and physiologically primed for a maximal effort. Science has shown clearly, for example, that endurance athletes race better when they include high-intensity work in their taper than when they do everything at low intensity. Seiler rates tapering as “potentially decisive if you have one isolated competition. . . and everything else is done right.”
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.
Try this Simple Pacing Games
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.