By Fatima Ahmad
To achieve goals as a competitive runner, fitness is essential, but it’s not sufficient. To race well, in addition to the intangibles—what Steve Prefontaine famously referred to as “guts”—requires some specific skills that often receive little attention in runners’ training plans.
Proper pacing is one of those skills. Guts can carry you through a lot of pain, but they can’t carry you to a new level of fitness in a single day. To achieve an appropriately ambitious goal, you must be able to find the pace that will squeeze every drop out of your fitness without leaving you dry too far from the finish.
Pacing really is a problem in two parts: knowing the appropriate pace, and actually running it. Knowing your proper pace is about understanding your fitness, factoring in the conditions you can expect to encounter on race day, and setting goals accordingly. The ability to run that pace, however, is a learned skill, requiring the awareness and finesse of playing a violin masterfully.
If the human body included a speedometer, pacing would be simple. In fact, we can approximate that situation on the track, where feedback comes as frequently as we care to check our watches. The difficulty comes on the roads, where most of us actually race. With splits every mile at best, and often of dubious accuracy, we don’t get many opportunities to gauge how we’re doing. When we do get feedback, we often misinterpret it, slowing down or speeding up based on the total time for the last mile, which may have little to do with our level of effort at that very moment.
The trick, then, is to base your pace on something other than a watch. The only real alternative, of course, are the sensations coming from your own body. This may seem like a step down in accuracy, but the experience of many elite athletes and their coaches suggests that our bodies can “learn” target paces, and perhaps more important, they can provide us with much more information about our level of effort than we often realize.
A Short-Term Solution: Practice Makes Perfect
Joseph Kahugu is a 2:07 marathoner who rabbitted the 2000 Houston Marathon as a training run for 26.2 in Tokyo a few months later. Kahugu’s coach, Bruce Meyer, said that to prepare for those pacesetting duties and the subsequent competition, Kahugu preferred a workout that allowed him to practice his goal pace on the track: seven to eight repeats of 1,000m at target marathon pace, with a 400m jog interval after each effort.
Several coaches I spoke with recommended some variation on this “pace-practicing” approach as part of an athlete’s preparations for an important competition. Mike Fanelli—coach of the Impala Racing Team and a three-time U.S. National Team coach—said he often has his athletes prepare for a Sunday race with a series of pace-practicing workouts sandwiched between easy days:
Tuesday: 2 x 200; 1 x 400, 600, 800, 600, 400 (200 recovery)
Thursday: 3 x 800 (400 recovery)
Saturday: 3 x 200 (200 recovery)
For the accelerated race pace of a 5K, Fanelli said he may extend the recovery in the Tuesday session to 400 meters, but otherwise the sessions remain the same all the way through the marathon distance.
Jack Daniels, one of the most successful and respected American coaches and author of Daniels’ Running Formula, applies the same concept to training for the marathon. In the 18 weeks prior to the big event, Daniels’ program calls for three or four runs of one to two-and-a-half hours at marathon pace (MP), with the final MP session—the lesser of 15 miles or two-and-a-half hours—falling 21 days before the race. These runs are pretty demanding, so they replace the traditional long run for a given week, and Daniels recommends that runners planning an MP workout find a half-marathon or marathon race in which to do it. 2000 U.S. Marathon Trials champion Rod DeHaven adopted Daniels’ program in preparation for that competition, and he cited the marathon-pace runs as a key factor that, he felt, helped carry him to victory.
Whatever the structure of the workout or the distance of the race, the principle is the same: specificity. To learn how to run a given pace, practice that pace over and over until the body can settle into that “groove” more or less automatically. The volume of work done at goal pace will vary with race distance, but, as Fanelli emphasizes, you should finish these sessions feeling fresh, not fatigued. In other words, don’t run the race in the pacing sessions.
A Long-Term Solution: Learning To Listen To Your Body
These pace-practicing sessions can be helpful tune-ups, but they all have the drawback of occurring under conditions—flat terrain, low stress, frequent feedback from the watch—that are rarely encountered on race day. To develop more fundamental pacing skills, runners must learn to tune in to the many cues our bodies send us as we run hard, and then to relate those to cues to the pace appropriate for the race at hand.
With that goal in mind, Jack Daniels’ training plans include another kind of workout, what he calls the “unstructured” session. These sessions are performed once a week early in the season, as the athlete transitions from base work and relaxed strides into tougher training. The sessions are “unstructured” because they are run on unmeasured (and sometimes rolling) courses and are based on elapsed time rather than distance.
As detailed in Daniels’ Running Formula, there are two basic unstructured sessions in the coach’s training programs for distance runners:
Countdown Sets of two minutes hard + one minute easy + one minute hard + 30 seconds easy + 30 seconds hard + 30 seconds easy;
Repeat Sets of four minutes hard + three minutes easy.
Here, “hard” means about current 5K race pace, and the distance covered in those hard efforts should add up to no more than eight percent of the week’s mileage or 10K, whichever is less.
In Coach Daniels’ experience, the most important benefit of these workouts (apart from improvements in fitness) is the emphasis on perceived level of effort. “If you’re not concerned about running a particular time,” he said in a recent interview, “you’re more focused on how you feel. You start thinking about how you’re feeling.”
By repeating the sessions over several weeks, runners learn how to relate the signals their body sends during these hard efforts to the level of effort they can sustain for the duration of the workout—and, by extension, a 5K or 10K. The goal is to identify patterns, such as a breathing rate or certain sensations of fatigue, associated with various levels of effort. An athlete can then use those patterns, or any deviation from them, as a signal to slow down or speed up during a race. This can be particularly helpful on a hilly course, or under hot and humid conditions, where time takes a back seat to intensity.
One advantage of both the pace-practicing and unstructured sessions described here is that they can be incorporated into a runner’s training program without taking away from other objectives. Pace-practicing workouts make good tapering and sharpening sessions, and the unstructured runs are a great way to work on high-level aerobic fitness without spending the whole season on a track.
Of course, as every competitive runner knows, no training session perfectly prepares an athlete to race. With that fact in mind, here are few more tips from Fanelli and Daniels for the big day:
- “Start the race slower than target paceby a few seconds per mile,” Fanelli urges. This serves as an extension of your warm-up and often allows you to move up through the field as the race goes by, providing a nice psychological boost. And given the extra adrenaline of race day, says Fanelli, “This usually ends up resulting in a first-mile split very close to the desired pace after all.”
- Focus on breathing patterns:“Two-two is good until the last mile of a 5K, and the last mile or two of a 10K,” says Daniels.
- Think about the task at hand—not how far is left to go, your finishing position or the impending hills, but what you’re doing at that moment: How’s my breathing? Am I running with a light, quick turnover? Daniels promises, “This will get you through a whole lot of races.”