I used to coach a talented runner who ran the first mile of every race too fast, only to slow down dramatically during the latter segments and end up disappointed with the result. He thought he was better than his workouts and he let his competitive spirit and pre-race adrenaline obscure his knowledge of his true fitness level. It was frustrating to watch him start off so well and get slower with each successive lap of the track. It was only after he understood proper pacing and learned how to control himself that he saw the level of success we both knew he could attain.
Better runs are paced runs. I spend a lot of time talking to runners about pace. The single biggest mistake runners make when they race or do interval workouts is that they start out too fast, way above their fitness level. They either ignore or do not learn from their training a realistically sustainable pace for the entire race. The faster you run the first half of a race, the more your muscles rely on oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism to generate energy. With the greater reliance on oxygen-independent metabolism and muscular work comes an increase in muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolites that cause fatigue. So you don’t want to run too far above that line so early in the race or workout. Whether the race is a mile or a marathon, you can’t put running time in the bank. You will end up losing more time in the end than what you gained by being ahead of schedule in the beginning. No matter how strong your will is to push through the pain, the metabolic condition caused by running too fast too early will force you to slow down during subsequent stages of the race. Our muscles fatigue for a reason—so we slow down to protect them from damage.
Approach all of your workouts and races with a pace and a mindset that enables you to run a negative split—the second half slightly faster than the first half. To negative split a race requires accurate knowledge of your fitness level, confidence to stick to your plan when other runners start at too fast of a pace, and a good dose of self-restraint. The most economical racing strategy, when you want to achieve a specific time rather than a specific place, is to prevent large fluctuations in pace and run as evenly as possible until you near the finish.
To become a better runner, pace is one of the best things you can learn about yourself. One of the runners I coach wrote to me in an email after running a solid 9-mile tempo run, “I have learned (and continue to learn) about my pacing. If I push myself to a preset pace when my body is not ready, my entire workout (or race) seems to suffer. My body tells me when it is okay to speed up. If I listen, like I did today, I perform better, using less effort for the same pace. If I don’t listen, I never seem to gain the fluidity that I am always trying to achieve in training runs and races.” Paced runs teach us the art of self-control, of rationing our efforts for the long haul. Become a master of the pace and you become a master of yourself.
Listen to your inner runner. When you run a race, ask yourself within the first mile (or the first lap or two of a track race), “Can I really hold this pace the entire way?” Be honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then back off the pace so you can have a better race. The best workouts and races come when you are in control of them and of yourself the whole time and able to run faster in the closing stages, rather than when the workout or race is controlling you and you’re just hanging on to the pace, waiting for the finish line.
Becoming a better runner means becoming intimately familiar with different paces and how your body feels. If you can develop an internal clock, it will prevent you from starting races too fast. You’ll become more aware of what you’re doing in your training runs and races rather than just throw caution to the wind and hope for the best. Proper pacing is vital for success in most races, becoming more important the longer the race. In the marathon, for example, deviating from your average race pace by more than 2 percent is metabolically more costly than deviating by more. In learning what different paces feel like, get to the point that if someone were to say to you, “Run at 5K-race pace,” you are able to run at 5K-race pace without looking at your watch. To accomplish this, I sometimes take my runners’ watches away from them when they run workouts on the track and give them feedback only from my stopwatch every lap so they can learn the pace of the workout. Use your workouts to learn a sense of pace. Tracks are invaluable for this. When you do a workout on the track, you can monitor the pace every 100 meters since tracks are marked in 100-meter segments. If you’re not good at pacing, calculate the pace of your workout for every 100 meters and look at your watch at each marking. Make adjustments to the pace if you’re too fast or too slow. After you have done that for a few workouts, look at your watch every 200 meters, then every 300 meters, and then every 400 meters. For longer races like the marathon, do some of your runs on marked paths and practice pace by looking at your watch every mile or every other mile. Over time, you’ll acquire a keen sense of pacing that will rival a metronome.
Running includes many internal rhythms, all with their own unique paces that work together. Your heart, your stride, your arm swing, and your breath are all rhythms that are intricately controlled and modified and define the intensity and feeling of your runs. As you increase your pace from a slow jog to a fast run, heart rate quickens to send more blood to the working muscles to match your muscles’ demand for oxygen. Stride rate increases, accompanied by a longer stride to quicken the pace. Arm swing increases by exactly the same amount as the stride rate to balance what the legs are doing and appease Isaac Newton that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Breathing rate increases, accompanied by deeper breaths to keep pace with the heart rate and exhale the carbon dioxide that is accumulating in your blood from an increase in metabolic activity. When the run goes right, all of these rhythms—the heart, the stride, the arm swing, the breath—align to create not just a better run, but a better experience.