Lessons from Running in the Middle of the Pack

Today I ran a half-marathon in the middle of the pack, as I sometimes do, as an easy long run. I don’t often like running long by myself, so jumping in a local half-marathon gives me a chance to run long with others. Shortly after starting, I saw two guys holding up a sign for the 1:45 pace group, so I decided to stick with them the rest of the way.

When I’m not racing, it gives me a chance to observe the views (which on this course from Del Mar to La Jolla cove are spectacular) and, more insightful, the other runners. So I decided to write about what I learn from running in the middle of the pack that will help you run better.

Lesson #1: Know what pace you really can sustain the whole way. When I started running with the 1:45 pace group (8-minute mile pace), there was a big group of runners. By the time there was 3 or 4 miles left, I was the only one left with the two pace setters. I’ve seen this happen many times before, including races that I have paced myself. And it happens because people choose what pace they want to run rather than the pace they can run. And they do that because they don’t pay attention to their training. Your training will tell you what pace you can realistically run for the race distance. Learn from your training, and don’t pick some arbitrary pace that you want to run, otherwise you will fall off the pace and will be running your slowest toward the end, when you should be running your fastest. Pick the pace that is right for you and start at that pace; you’ll know halfway through the race if you can run faster.   

Lesson #2: Bend from your ankles, not from your waist. I see many runners hunching over from their waist when they run, especially when running uphill. When you bend from the waist, you diminish the amount of force you can produce against the ground, which will hurt your ability to run forward. (Remember back to high school physics and Isaac Newton: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So if you want to project yourself forward farther with each step, you must produce more force against the ground directed behind you from the ball of your foot.) Imagine your body in full alignment, such that you can draw a straight, slightly diagonal line from your head through your hips.

Here’s a photo of three Olympic gold medalist distance runners. This is what you should look like when you run. Notice how they lean from the ankle, not from the waist.


Lesson #3: It’s all physical, not mental. I once had a conversation with an elite Kenyan runner after he had won a big a race, talking to him about training. When I asked him how he psychologically handles running so many miles per week, he said in his Kenyan accent, “It’s not mental. It’s all physical. You just do the physical work and there’s nothing to think about.” People like to say the task of running is mostly mental, but the Kenyan runner was right. If you have trained your body to hold the pace, if you have trained for the hills, if you have trained to deal with the discomfort, then the race is simply the opportunity to do what your body is trained to do. The problem is that most people going to the start line of a half-marathon or marathon have not done the necessary training, so they are left to think that it’s all mental. Don’t be one of those people. Commit yourself to the training. Confidence comes from being prepared.      

Lesson #4: Your internal clock will always be more reliable than your GPS. Running in the middle of the pack, I hear a lot of beeping every mile, as people’s GPS watches signal the completion of another mile. But they all beep at different times. If a mile is the same for everyone running the same exact path on the road, they should all beep at exactly the same time. But they don’t because GPS watches aren’t reliable. You know what is reliable? Your body. Don’t rely on your GPS. Even the pacesetters were constantly checking their GPS today. It drove me crazy. I wanted to take the lead and pace the group myself. Learn the pace by practicing it. That’s what training is for. (I talk all about pace runs and what you learn about yourself by learning pace in my new book, The Inner Runner). Develop your internal pace clock. It will serve you very well when you race.

Happy Running!

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