If the goal of every race is to finish in the least amount of time as possible, then it's easy to understand why pacing is so important. The question is, how do you train yourself to be better at run pacing? Matt Fitzgerald explains.
Every runner knows that pacing is important. But I’m here to tell you it’s even more important than most runners realize. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the sport of distance running is all about pacing, which is why I wrote an entire book about it (On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit). Skeptical? Keep reading.
The goal of every race, long or short, is to complete the required distance in the least time possible. In a short race like a 100-meter dash, the best way to achieve this goal is to start at maximal effort and sustain it the whole way through. But if you tried this strategy in, say, an 800-meter race, you’d hit a wall and end up finishing much slower than you would have if you’d deliberately held back at the beginning (i.e., paced yourself).
The question is this: How much do you hold back? To achieve the goal of completing an endurance race in the least time possible, you must hold back just enough to avoid a significant involuntary loss of speed before you finish. Perfect pacing, in other words, is precise pacing, and precise pacing is difficult—and rare. Studies indicate that very few runners are able to pace their race efforts anywhere close to optimally. An example is a 2021 study by Claire Molinari of the University of Paris-Saclay, who found that recreational runners were on average 14 percent slower in a self-paced 3000-meter time trial than they were when their pace was externally regulated to maintain a steady rate of oxygen consumption.
Perfect pacing is precise pacing, and precise pacing is difficult—and rare.
As this example illustrates, unskillful pacing is costly (that 14 percent difference in performance translated to nearly 2 minutes). You work hard for your fitness, and if you’re not good at pacing, you’re wasting a certain percentage of that fitness in races. While pacing ability does tend to improve naturally with experience, mastering the skill requires a deliberate approach. But before I share some of the methods I use to develop this skill in the athletes I coach, let’s first define what it means to be a skillful pacer.
Skillful Pacing Defined
The hallmark characteristic of a well-paced race is consistency. When a runner’s pace is erratic, they make less efficient use of their limited energy, resulting in slower competition times. The goal in race pacing, therefore, is to identify the fastest pace you can sustain for the entire race distance and then hold that pace all the way to the finish line, with some allowance for the effects of hills and winds.
Okay, but how do you identify the fastest pace you can sustain for a given race? The answer—like it or not—is by feel. Tools like the Strava Pace Calculator can supply a reasonably reliable estimate of how fast you can go at a given distance, but each race represents a unique situation, and you’re a slightly different athlete every time you compete, so in the end you have to rely on your perceptions to get the best possible result.
This might sound rather daunting, but research shows that athletes can get really good at estimating their own performance limits by feel. In a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Lille, for example, 25 cyclists representing three levels of competitiveness—local, regional, and national—were exposed to small doses of different exercise intensities and asked to estimate how long they could last at each of them. Then the cyclists rode as long as they could at one of these intensities. All four of the locally competitive cyclists gave highly inaccurate predictions of their time to exhaustion, whereas four of the six national-caliber cyclists were spot-on in their estimates, proving that it’s possible to develop a reliable feel for one’s limits.
Calibrate your perceptions
Skillful pacing is not a matter of completely tuning out objective measurements and going entirely by feel. Instead, it’s a matter of linking internal perceptions of speed and effort with objective measurements. A skilled pacer will complete a 10K time trial at a slightly faster speed than an 11K time trial because they can feel the small difference between an effort they can sustain for 10K and one they can hold for 11K. The only way to develop such granular sensitivity is to consistently link internal perceptions to corresponding paces, distances, and times.
Simple ways to do this include guessing your pace at random moments in workouts and doing “blinded” fartlek runs, where you perform multiple surges of short duration (e.g., 1 minute) without consulting your watch, trying to get as close as possible to 60 seconds (and a predetermined pace) by relying on your internal clock and speedometer.
Play pacing games
There are lots of fun ways to challenge—and thereby improve—your ability to exert precise control of your speed and effort. Two of my favorites are precision repetitions and stretch intervals.
Precision repetitions: Aim to complete a set of distance-based repetitions (e.g., 8 x 400m) in precisely the same time, right down to the tenth of a second. The better you get at this, the better you’ll get at regulating your pace generally.
Pacing is essentially the art of finding your limit. When you succeed in completing a race in the least time possible, that’s what you’ve done.
Stretch intervals: Aim to cover slightly more distance in each interval in a set of time-based intervals (e.g., 8 x 0:45), culminating in an all-out effort in the final interval. This workout challenges you to really pay attention to your effort while you run and learn to perceive very slight differences in output.
Test your limits
Pacing is essentially the art of finding your limit. When you succeed in completing a race in the least time possible, that’s what you’ve done—paced your way to your absolute physical limit for that particular event. Testing your limits in training will improve your chances of finding your limit in races. But you must do so judiciously, as limit testing is highly stressful to the body.
A relatively low-risk way to introduce limit testers into training is through short time trials. For example, instead of running 5 x 1 mile at 10K race pace, run 4 x 1 mile at 10K race pace and finish with a 1-mile time trial. Short “B” races can serve the same purpose. Regardless of what type of “A” race you’re aiming for, sprinkling your training with a few 5K events or other low-key short races will leave you better prepared to pace perfectly when it really counts.
A Competitive Advantage
The bright side of the reality that most endurance athletes suck at pacing is that it offers a competitive advantage to those who get better at it. Stop wasting 14 percent of your potential (give or take) in races by committing to improving your pacing skill!