The inspiration for this editorial came from a chat I had on Twitter some time ago with a fellow runner who said he tends to go relatively slower in the third or fourth kilometre of a 5k run. I suggested trying pacing to help get past the problem and hopefully also shave a bit of his overall time and help in the move towards a full marathon.
Although I’ve always tried hard rather than jogged easily round races I’ve never been the kind of runner who breaks any records except, rarely, my own PB. Nor am I the kind of runner who does speedwork or anything else ‘fancy’ on much more than an ad hoc basis. I’ve only really gone for a serious training regime, religiously following a schedule, when working towards a specific half marathon or marathon, and I am by no means a regular at those distances.
For all that, my present regime involves between two and four runs a week, and I’ve become something of a fan of pacing, which I think has helped me improve 5k and 10k times over the last year or so.
So what is pacing and how do you make it work for you?
Pacing is making sure you run at the speed which suits you best at a particular moment in any race or training session. On any specific occasion you might be going for a pace anywhere on a spectrum that will stretch you to a PB or give you a comfortable, pleasant, relaxed run.
The two worst pacing traps any runner can fall into are going off too fast and relaxing at notorious ‘pinch points’ such as the third kilometre of a 5k and seventh kilometre of a 10k.
Going off too fast is a big problem for many people and it can take real discipline to avoid. It is easy to do when you are out on a training run and even easier to do in the buzz of a race. But it’s never a good idea in a race and if it’s not part of a planned strategy on a training run it is best avoided there too.
Suffering at those ‘pinch points’ is, I think, partly a result of going off too fast at the starting gun and partly a result of psychology. The third kilometre of five and the seventh kilometre of ten are a long way into a run, but not far enough that the finish line is in sight. You know there is still a fair way to go. Your brain says this is hard work, and your body agrees.
Pacing can help with this because you’ll know you have been working to a set strategy till this point, and that you can continue with that strategy to the end, maybe even picking things up a bit in the final stretch if you’re feeling good then. It’ll also help because you won’t have sapped too much energy by starting off way too fast.
So, how do you get started with pacing?
First, get yourself a GPS watch. Ideally get one that can display both average pace and pace per kilometre at the same time. By being able to glance at both on screen at once, you’ll be able to see whether you are on track overall as well as how you are doing on the current kilometre. This information can tell you if you need to pick it up a little or slow down a little without the need for maths on the fly. And maths only gets harder as you get more tired.
I say get a watch rather than use a smartphone app because you need to be able to look at it very regularly. Learning to run at an even pace is likely to be quite a challenge and you’ll probably need to check how you’re doing frequently. Do you think you can judge, say, 10 seconds difference in pace over a distance of a thousand meters? Probably not, but in running terms dropping 10 seconds for every kilometre of a 5k will shave nearly a minute from the total time.
Next, set a pace. I’ve not got a scientific basis on which this next bit of advice is being given. It’s more common sense really. You’ve got to start somewhere with pacing and I reckon 5k is a great distance for the initial rollout.
Do a run on a circuit that’s 5k. Don’t race it, just run it comfortably. This will be your initial benchmark and it’s meant to help you get started, not to set yourself a tricky target. Don’t worry at all about pace as you are doing the run. Do what you’d usually do, and at the end make a note of how long it takes you.
Use your finishing time to work out the average pace per kilometre. The next time you do a 5k, use your watch to try to evenly match that pace on every kilometre. (Now, it has to be said at this point that this system works best on flat routes. You’ll tend to go faster down hill, slower up. This can be compensated for later on, but early work with pacing is best done on the flat).
In your training diary (if you don’t have one, start one, they’re great), note how you feel about this exercise. Did you feel you were going slowly to start with but better later? Did you feel you finished with more energy? Did it feel forced, comfortable, difficult? Did keeping an eye on the watch help you focus more on the run or did you feel harassed? It’s all useful information for how you handle pacing going forward.
Stick to runs at the pace you’ve set for a bit and watch how you fluctuate off the pace. What helps you stay on pace? What causes problems? Can you get close to an even pace all the way through? You’ll have to make obvious allowances for things like crossing roads, but see how close you can get to an even paced run within these allowances.
When you’re happy, and that might take a few weeks, try to up the pace a little, and shave off a few seconds from each kilometre. I’m not going to get all scientific here – we’re all different, and if anyone reading this is seriously trying to improve in leaps and bounds then they’re better off joining an athletics club with a coach than trying a DIY approach like this one.
My golden rule is don’t go for huge advances when you are trying to quicken the pace, and don’t try to do every single run faster than the last. Small improvements over a long period of time is the way to go. And remember that what seem like small time reductions can be quite difficult to achieve, but can make a big difference.
If you do runs of differing lengths – and that’s what many people do, set paces accordingly. Your 5k pace is likely to be faster than your 10k pace. If you have a favourite circuit that’s 8k, or 12k, or whatever, set your pace sensibly.
If you know a run you do regularly has an ascent or descent within it, then adjust your pace for particular kilometres to compensate. This can be tricky to do on paper, but if you try the circuit a few times you’ll work out what pacing changes work best for you.
On some days, leave the watch at home. For all its usefulness, I wouldn’t advocate getting too hung up on pacing. Don’t do it all the time. Some of the best runs I have are then ones when I set out not knowing where I’ll go, how far I’ll go, how fast (or slow) I’ll run or how long I’ll be out for. I might run along the river and stop to look at the wildlife for a bit completely spontaneously. Or I might meet someone I know and stop for a chat. It sends my pacing notes off the scale, but it’s still a training run, and still has great value.
Oh yes. Pacing notes. I keep pacing notes even on those non-paced runs. By which I mean I note in my training diary how long I took for each kilometre, even though during the run itself I never so much as glance at my watch.
And that’s my final bit of advice on pacing. After every run write your pace for each kilometre in your training diary. At the outset you may well find your pace per kilometre varies wildly, but over time you will produce more even splits. You can record personal milestones like fastest kilometers, runs where you were closest to goal pace most often, and over time, how your run times have fallen.
Pacing on its own will only get you so far, of course. Improving as a runner involves a lot of different factors. But if you are struggling to improve and feel your running is erratic, then an understanding of pacing is certainly worth adding to your toolbox.