Monday, 15 February 2016

Pace Matters

When you go out for a run, how often do you think about pacing? Probably not very often, for the majority of our runs, especially if we're not in training for a time goal. But it is worth thinking about and can be crucial to a successful race. Perhaps you've had a particular time goal in mind for an event, or just want it to be at the "speed of chat" and enjoyable. Have you ever felt as though you started too fast and not been able to complete your miles as you'd intended, or maybe you achieved those magical negative splits, where each mile is quicker than the last. All of these situations rely on pacing.

If you've ever followed a training plan then you may well have had an instruction to complete a run at a particular pace across the miles, or alternate between two different paces. While it may be tempting to disregard these notes and just cover the miles, teaching your body what it feels like to run at different speeds is important. Practicing running at faster speeds will of course help you to become a quicker runner, but will also help you to find that "kick" for the finish line, or to speed up to overtake or avoid a congested area. Practicing those slower speeds will help too; by running more slowly you'll be able to build your stamina and cover more ground, and to hold back at the start of a race rather than get carried away with the enthusiastic pace of the crowds.

When it comes to race days (and some parkrun days), if you're not comfortable in pacing yourself, or just don't want to look at your watch every few minutes, then pacers can really help. They will be easy to spot in large events as they typically carry a flag on their back, announcing the finish time they will aiming for, so as to be spotted by runners chasing that PB or goal. Stick with these guys and you'll be in with a good chance of hitting that time goal, although it may be at their choice of consistent pace, negative or positive splits!

You can sign up to be a pacer at Race Pacing, which is exactly what I did some months ago. Let them know what distances you like to run, at what pace, and what events you're available for and you may be invited to pace one of their events. A few weeks ago I received just such an email, asking if I would still be interested in pacing at the Hampton Court Half Marathon on February 21st. The answer was "yes"! Only after I'd replied did I really think about what was involved.
Photo from Race Pacing
Pacing isn't as straightforward as it may appear. It's one thing to run your own race at a pace, but quite another to be charged with getting other people around at the same pace (or slower). If you are running on your own you can adjust your goal, take a walking break, run as fast or as slow as you like  in sections, and if you finish in a quicker time then that's brilliant. If others are depending on you to pace them around then you need to be sure you won't be 5 minutes quicker or slower. Walking breaks are probably not ideal (even if you finish in time) as you'll upset the flow of pace. Will you have enough breath to encourage the runner around you? Are you comfortable running with a crowd? In an event with pacers for every 2 minute interval I once saw a pacer approach the finish line a full two minutes earlier than his allotted time (he'd even overtaken the pacer with allotted time two minutes ahead of him) and slow to a walk so as to cross the line "on time". His followers were nowhere to be seen, presumably not having been able to keep up.

So how can you train to pace an event? Firstly, add a couple of minutes on to the desired finishing time, to allow for some dodging and weaving during the event (how often do you complete a race having covered the exact distance? Then work out what the pace per mile/kilometer would need to be to complete the distance at a consistent speed. Now get out and practice! I've practiced running at pace or slightly faster than pace over increasing distances in the past few weeks, to get used to how it feels and reassure myself that I can achieve it. Sometimes this may feel uncomfortably slow but this is why we practice. Try and practice on similar sort of terrain and take into account that your pace uphill will be slower. You don't have to be consistent on the way uphill and downhill (that way burn out can lie) but ensure that your miles are relatively consistent, to give people the best chance of sticking with you. Pacing for an individual is a bit different and I may write about that on another occasion.

One of the most common mistakes people make with pacing is to set off too quickly so for everyone, here's a set you can do on your own to help practice increasing pace that I put my RunFitUK group through recently.

You'll need a lap that you can comfortably cover in a minute or less, a marker/cone and a timer. Set your timer for 2 minutes and start at a easy run, say about 50% of your max effort. Count the number of laps you complete and place the marker or cone at your finishing point. Return to the start point and take a minute or so to recover. Put another 2 minutes on the clock and start running again, this time a little quicker, say at 60% of your maximum effort. Your aim is to run further than you did before, so more laps, or getting past the cone on your last lap. Move your marker to your new finishing spot. Repeat this another 2-3 times, each time aiming to run a little faster and beat the cone. You'll soon know if you started too quickly!

I'm really looking forward to pacing the Hampton Court Half and share my experience. In the meantime, happy running!

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