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.