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.

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.

I have too many ideas. I could write two books a year for the next 100 years and still not get around to writing all the books I have ideas for, let alone execute on my non-book-related ideas. I even have an idea for a book called 100 Books I’ll Never Write. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Still, I’d rather have too many ideas than not enough. In this post I would like to share one of the ideas I don’t have time to do anything about in the hope that it will inspire someone else (maybe you!) to take it up. You already know what it is because I put it in the headline.

So, to begin: Chances are you have a Strava account, and if you don’t, you at least know what Strava is: an online platform that allows endurance athletes to share their training and racing exploits with other endurance athletes. It takes advantage of the fact that most endurance athletes are proud of their workouts and races and want other people to know about them.

In my view, though, the best use of Strava is not bragging about your own training and racing but following the training of highly successful athletes. As long as you do so in an intelligent way (not a monkey-see-monkey-do way), observing how the best athletes approach fitness development can serve as a useful source of information to guide your approach to same. This is especially true if you follow a number of such athletes, as clear patterns will emerge (e.g., adherence to the 80/20 principle of intensity balance). Most of the best endurance athletes do most things right in their training, so you can trust that these patterns represent true best practices in endurance training.

For some time now I’ve wished that there existed a dietary analog to Strava. I think it could help athletes in a way that’s similar to what I just described on the training side. Just as most athletes fail to follow best practices in their training, most athletes also fail to eat optimally. The most common mistake is simply eating too much junk food and not enough healthy food (i.e., the same mistake most nonathletes make with their diet), but a lot of other athletes make something close to the opposite mistake of being too restrictive with their diet. Indeed, if I had a nickel for every athlete I’ve encountered over the years who paid a significant cost in fitness and/or health resulting from being too restrictive or obsessive with food in one way or another, I would live in a much bigger house.

Elite athletes seldom make this mistake. There are exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of elites, particularly those who perform at the very highest level for extended periods of time, tend to follow a balanced and inclusive that is basically “normal” except in its overall quality. If you’re interested, you can learn more about the characteristics of this way of eating in my book The Endurance Diet. In any case, the point I wish to make here is that it would be really helpful if large numbers of elite endurance athletes were among those sharing the specifics of their daily eating with other athletes on a Strava-like platform.

If you’re a cynic, you’re right now thinking that it’s a lot easier to lie about what you eat than it is to lie about your training, and that people are highly prone to lie—even to themselves—about what they eat. I agree. As yet, there is no dietary equivalent of a GPS running watch that automatically uploads the details of your last meal or snack, and any nutrition scientist can tell you that dietary self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. There’s no denying these facts, but I believe it’s possible to account for them in a manner that would preserve the potential value of a Strava-for-diet type of service.

Photos would be a piece of it. If you can’t upload photographic evidence that you ate what you say you ate, then you didn’t eat it. This would do nothing to address the problem of not sharing the things you eat that you don’t want others to know you eat, but the platform could do so fairly easily by recognizing a small number of its participants as “verified influencers.” These individuals would be recruited from among the platform’s most widely followed participants and would be offered modest compensation in exchange for agreeing in writing to provide complete and accurate information about their diet. This mechanism would serve not only to give participants confidence in the information presented by the influencers but would also incentivize aspiring future influencers to provide complete and accurate information about their own diet.

I’m not so naive as to think a Strava-for-diet platform that included such measures would spare every athlete from going down the wrong path with their diet. But I do believe its net effect would be positive, because it’s a simple fact that most of the most successful endurance athletes eat in a healthy way that’s not too restrictive, and the platform I envision would make this fact apparent in a way that it’s not currently, So, anyway, if you like this idea and you’ve got time on your hands and some capital, make it happen.

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