By now you've probably heard that you have to stay on pace. Learning how to pace properly can be one of the most difficult parts of your training. However, it is also one of the most essential components to becoming a stronger runner. Pacing yourself properly in a race will help you achieve your goals and finish feeling strong.
But what exactly is pace? Pace is simply the consistent, average speed that you cover over a specified distance. In our training programs, we define your pace based on how many minutes it would take you to run one mile. Each training group has a specific goal pace that they use for the running portion of the workouts. Your coaches are responsible for making sure the group sticks to this pace. Coaches will generally use a GPS device (such as a Garmin watch) to help them stay on target with their goal pace. But just because you aren't responsible for your pacing on these group runs, doesn't mean you can't use these group runs as a learning experience.
The basic essentials you will need to become better at pacing yourself are a watch with a timing function and some sort of running log. To figure out your pace, you just need to know how far you've run and how long it took you. Let's say you ran two miles and it took you 25 minutes to complete those two miles. In this case, you would have been running a 12 ½ minute mile. If you can look at your speed at each ½ mile, you will be better able to judge how even your pace is. The other essential pacing tool, especially for a beginning runner, is a running log. You can log your runs however you like (online, in a notebook, or in an actual running log). The important part of keeping the log is to make sure to note not only your distance, intervals and pace, but also how you felt on that run. This will help you learn to know how your goal pace feels. Looking back over these notes on a regular basis throughout your training will help you develop better self-pacing skills.
When it comes to learning how to pace yourself, the best advice is to practice, practice, practice. Even if you are letting someone else pace you, try to be conscious of how that pace feels to you. If you are running a faster pace than you usually run, take note of how that pace feels different. The cues in your body that you should be listening for are how fast your heart is beating, how your legs feel, how heavy your breathing is, how heavy your foot strikes sound, etc. Different people look for different cues. You just need to practice listening to your body while running to learn what cues help you keep on pace.
In the long run, being able to know what your goal pace feels like will be a tremendous help to you. This will be especially true on race day. At the start of the race you will be surrounded by hundreds of other runners (the majority of them horrible pacers) who are running faster than you need to run. You need to learn to trust your instincts and feel how fast you are actually running. It is hard with all those people speeding by you and with your adrenaline at elevated levels, but if you get comfortable with your goal pace and how it feels to you, you will be able to run a good even race and you will finish strong and healthy.
In a study, University of Tsukuba researcher Kazuo Takai surveyed 60 runners who had just completed a 20-K race in Japan. He split the runners into two groups--those who had stayed on pace easily and finished at their predicted times, and those who had not. The runners who stayed on pace paid attention to their bodies while running. They regularly noted how well or bad they felt, how hard they were breathing and how fast they were pumping their arms. The ones who failed to pace themselves well had used other strategies such as following other runners or obsessively checking their watches. (1)
Learning how to pace yourself will take some time and practice, but in the end that hard work and practice will pay off. Being able to run a nice, even and consistent pace is one of the most useful tools you can have in your running training bag. Even, consistent pacing is one of the key elements to becoming a more successful runner.