How to pace yourself in distance races

Andy Renfree reports on research that has confirmed the importance of appropriate pacing

Posted on November 1, 2012 by
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Kenenisa Bekele (Mark Shearman)

Endurance athletes work hard to improve their performance, spending countless hours training, ensuring good nutrition, and curtailing social activities to ensure good sleep. Unfortunately, much of this hard work is wasted during competition. The simple reason is that they fail to pace themselves appropriately.

Given the volume of literature on the physiological basis of human performance, it is surprising that only recently has pacing been addressed in detail by the sports science community. However, it is clear that appropriate pacing is a fundamental requirement of success in endurance activities. Only through accurate pacing is hard-won performance potential actually recognised as evidenced by a fast time or high finishing position.

Research suggests there is an overall pacing strategy associated with high-level performance in events lasting longer than two minutes. A common pacing strategy has been found in the previous 32 and 34 world record runs over 5000m and 10,000m, characterised by a second half faster than the first, and a final kilometre that was the fastest of the race.

These findings have been repeated so frequently that we could conclude that we already know what constitutes a good strategy, and simply recommend everyone follows it. However, it should be emphasised that not many athletes break world records, and for every record-breaker (who must win the race in which it is set) there are many more athletes behind them. An interesting question therefore relates to how these “non-winning” athletes pace themselves. If we know this, it may be possible to identify ways of maximising performance capacity in the majority of competitors.

To address this issue, our group at the University of Worcester examined pacing profiles of finishers in the women’s marathon at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in a study to be published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. We chose this event because all intermediate times were available for a large number of runners (60) and because the flat course minimised the impact of terrain on running speed.

Our first finding was that athletes finishing in the leading positions had faster personal bests than athletes finishing further down the field. This is hardly surprising, but a more interesting finding was that athletes finishing in the leading positions recorded final times closer to their all-time PBs than the athletes behind them. In fact, it seemed that the lower the finishing position then the greater the discrepancy between finishing times and PB times. Effectively, slower athletes finished further behind the leaders than they “should” have. This had significant implications for the positions achieved by athletes outside the first few finishers.

Any individual in the second half of the field could have expected to finish at least 10 positions higher if they had been able to produce a similar level of performance relative to their PBs as the leaders. If the reasons for these differing levels of performance are known, the athlete who acts upon this information may be able to beat athletes with superior PBs.

The reasons for these differing relative levels of performance may be explained through analysis of pacing strategies displayed by successful and less successful competitors. In the early stages of the race all ran at similar speeds. However, whereas the leaders displayed relatively small fluctuations in pace, those finishing in the bottom half of the field became progressively slower after 10km. Those finishing just behind the leading group simply managed to “hang on” for longer before they too dropped back.

We must not forget though that the leading finishers also had the best PBs. While the leading finishers were running below the speeds maintained in their PB performances in the early stages, those in the second half of the field were running well above their PB speeds. The leaders were probably running slower than they were capable of for tactical reasons, but for the rest these early speeds were clearly too fast as they were unsustainable.

Although this data demonstrates the impact of starting too fast on the final performance achieved, it does not explain why athletes make this mistake. It must also be emphasised that these were athletes representing national teams so cannot be considered novices or lacking in experience of high-level running.

Clues may be uncovered through reference to models used to explain how work rate is regulated during self-paced exercise. Without going into full detail, both the rating of perceived exertion (RPE), which is really just a simple way of interpreting physiological feedback to produce an overall sensation of how “hard” you are working, and emotional state have been proposed to be involved in the regulatory process. Both of these can be influenced by psychological factors relevant in a competitive event. For example, when RPE is low (as in the initial stages of a marathon), it seems psychological cues can override physiological cues.

These psychological cues can include factors like crowd support. It is easy to imagine a situation whereby an individual in a major event is excited by bigger than usual crowds. The result could be that they feel they are not working very hard and therefore run faster than they should. This is fine initially, but when physiological cues start to dominate later in the race, no amount of crowd support can bring the RPE down. As a result the athlete needs to dramatically reduce their speed.

Emotional state is similarly influenced by competition-relevant factors, and in particular perception of your own performance. Again, this is easy to place in the context of a race. If you are sensible you pace yourself according to your own abilities. However, seeing your opponents disappearing over the horizon is likely to produce negative feelings even if objectively you know you are running at an appropriate speed.

Alternatively, being in contention with the leaders is likely to produce more positive emotions in the short-term, even though the inevitable consequence is disaster later on.

One further possible explanation is probably the simplest of all. Researchers in the business world have known for years about the “herd principle”. This proposes the easiest decision to make is to do whatever everyone else is doing. It is obvious how this principle could explain the findings in this race. Athletes outside of the leading group would base their running speeds on the athletes just ahead of them. This ends up with everyone running at similar speeds, but also means that the slower the athletes’ performance potential, the greater the discrepancy between selected and sustainable speeds. A greater discrepancy means greater risk of physiological “catastrophe” occurring, and the inevitable result is that athletes with slower PBs end up producing performances well below those of which they are capable.

So, how can athletes maximise their potential in competitive events? The obvious advice is to “run your own race”, but this is easier said than done, especially if you are surrounded by rivals who all run foolishly. Cross country is particularly interesting – as an athlete I was always advised to go out “hard” to get a good position. Everyone else seemed to be given the same advice and the result was the entire field ended up sprinting flat-out for the first 200m and “hanging on” for several miles. This also seems to be the case in the sport of cross-country mountain biking, where our research group have identified that cyclists recorded their highest speeds in the mass start.

Given the findings outlined previously, it would seem logical to expect that any individual brave enough to ignore everyone else and run at an even pace would end up beating a lot of athletes who should be much faster.

The trick though is probably to thoroughly mentally rehearse your plans well in advance of the race itself. You don’t want to be surprised to find yourself far behind your rivals early on, and you also need to avoid panicking and accelerating rapidly to make up for lost ground. If you are able to control yourself in the early stages, at some point you will start having the happy experience of passing those less sensible than yourself.

Perhaps the positive emotions produced as a result would allow you to run even faster, and display the “end-spurt” that is a characteristic of record-breaking runs in the 5000m and 10,000m events. Not only would the experience be altogether more positive, you would also maximise the value of your previous hard work, and finish ahead of people you have “no right” to beat!

Practical pacing

» Calculate your desired “realistic” split times

This won’t work for cross country, but it should on the road or track. Obviously these times should be based on realistic assessment of your capabilities.

» Mentally rehearse your strategy

Sport psychologists recommend visualisation of an upcoming event. This simply involves imagining yourself performing the task you ultimately aim to accomplish numerous times beforehand. You need to prepare yourself to remain disciplined in the early stages where you may find more runners than normal ahead of you.

» Be creative in training sessions

You could set up a session whereby athletes are running repetitions that all commence at two-minute intervals, but some are running 400s at 1500m pace while others are running 200s at 800m pace. The challenge is for those running the slower reps not to allow their pace to be influenced by those running faster.

» Rehearse in minor races

It may be foolish to try a new strategy in the most important race of the year. Try it out several times beforehand in less important races.

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