There seems to be tremendous interest right now in the health effects of sugar in our diets. Many people say that it is sugar, rather than fat, that is leading people to be overweight. Documentaries like "Fed Up" talk about both the addictive nature of sugar and how the idea of "eating better and exercising more" makes little sense when the environment makes it practically impossible to eliminate sugar additives from your diet in the first place. No matter how hard you try, the deck is simply stacked against you, so the thinking goes. So 21 days ago I set ...
Let’s get real for a moment about marathon pacing. If you’re running a marathon parts of it are going to feel somewhat unpleasant. This is true for just about everyone. However, a marathon is a long journey and the pace feels different at different points along the way. By understanding how the pace should feel at the various stages of the race, you can avoid either going out too hard or too slowly and hopefully make the tough parts go more smoothly.Before we jump into the play-by-play of the marathon, let’s reemphasize that knowing your pace is an important skill for marathon runners. Understanding what pace you can run for a specific distance is where the growth comes for most runners as they progress over time. At the beginning of a marathon runner’s experience the focus just tends to be on “getting through it” but after doing a couple of big runs, runners are more likely to start setting specific goals and it takes paying precise attention to pace to meet those goals. It’s also important to understand that the pace that we can run and sustain is scientifically related across a spectrum of distances. To say that another way, if you push yourself as hard as you can at 5K, we can calculate pretty specifically how fast you can go at various other distances. This knowledge can take the guess-work out of your pacing, but it requires a little work to get there in terms of testing yourself and then paying attention to your pace as you train and race.
So let’s say you’ve arrived at a target finish-time for your next race in a race. There are a couple of race strategies that you can use to get there — put here in the simplest of terms:
1) “I’m going to ‘wing’ it” — you can just go out and see what happens. This is the strategy for more runners than you might think. Unfortunately, it puts you at the highest risk of blowing up late in the race, because you really don’t know what pace you should be running at the beginning.
2) “I’ll go out hard and pray” — you go out hard to “bank” time for the slow-down that will likely come at the end of the race. This is also a tremendously common misconception of the way pacing works. Colloquially speaking we would say that for every minute you get ahead of your pacing capability in the first half the race, you’re going to pay for it with four minutes in the second half.
3) “I want to run a negative split” — Some people try to warm-up slowly over a number of miles and then crank up the pace in the second half. This is actually quite difficult to do in practice unless you’re talking about a very narrow negative split (or leaving a lot of time on the table). The reason as outlined below is that you become more fatigued as you go along so it feels harder to run THE SAME pace as the miles advance. This means that trying to increase the pace late in the race is pretty darn tough (but not impossible).
4) “I want to run an even pace” — The smart money is on trying to run your goal pace for the entire race. The best runners in the world execute their pacing plans down to extremely narrow margins — such as 5K splits within 1 second of each other across the whole race. We don’t all have to aspire to that sort of precision, but it certainly is a benchmark to envision what’s possible.
So how is that pace going to feel? I like to break down the race into quarters for simplicity and here’s what I say about each part of the race.
First Quarter (miles 0-6) — The first quarter of the marathon should feel fantastically easy. You should be running on a combination of sheer adrenaline and being well rested from a light week (or weeks) coming into the race. The focus of the first few miles of the marathon should be warming up and holding back to avoid going faster than goal pace. If the pace in the first quarter of the race feels too fast, you’ve most certainly gone out too hard. Happily if you are paying attention and are running the correct pace early enough you may not have done yourself in. Ignore it and you will pay for it later.
Here’s a question that shouldn’t stump you: how fast d o you run? But, in fact, this question results in puzzling answers from the vast majority of runners. If you’re thinking to yourself something along the lines of “well, in my last marathon I averaged about X pace” then you’re an example of what I’m going to talk about today.
Every workout should have a purpose and in getting to that purpose, you really need to know how fast you’re running. Not “sort of know” or “kind of know” or an “average pace” but exactly how fast you’re running. In order to train to run a particular goal pace, as well as to figure out what paces will get the most of your training, you need to start with an understanding of your pace at any given time.Before I get in to some easy ways and tips to keep track of pace, let me first explain the problem in a little more detail. I was out running with someone a couple of weeks ago and she said the darndest thing: “I don’t think I ran enough miles in my last training cycle, that’s why I didn’t meet my goal pace.” The error here is that there is little that the amount of miles tells you about your training, especially above a certain number of miles per week. What does tell you about how well you’re prepared to run any particular goal pace is: 1) how much of your training was actually done at goal pace and 2) how much of your training was done faster than goal pace. In an ideal setting most of your mileage will be done at goal pace or faster and only those few recovery efforts will be done more slowly. (To read more about different types of pace runs and the amount of each during a particular week, read our Running Terminology Series.)
Too many runners spend the bulk of their time running slower than goal pace and then they don’t understand why goal pace isn’t achieved on race day. Runners with goal pace expectations need to log the time at goal pace to learn that pace and to spend the time running faster than goal pace so that goal pace feels easy on race day.
I was in the gym talking with a fellow runner the other day and he said something curious to me. We were talking about whether to do an upcoming 5K race and he said, “I’m worried about banging myself up with another race.” This was interesting to me, because he is probably running upwards of 60 miles a week and we were talking about a 3 mile race. So I decided to poke on this a little bit more. Over the course of the conversation, what came out was this idea: he didn’t want to be dragged into an effort harder than he would put in on the track by other competitors.
Here are my thoughts on this topic:
— First, you own your own workout. Whatever the intensity, the pace, the distance you plan to run — these are within your control. It is important to keep this in mind when it comes to racing or even running with other people. If you were to decide to take the pace easy, then that’s up to you. If you want to push the first mile hard and then back off you can do that as well. If you find the opposite — that the pace isn’t hard enough — then it is up to you to change the pace. These factors are all under your control, so don’t succumb to peer pressure from other runners to do something else with your workout.
— Second, racing and speed workouts should be one and the same. If this runner was willing to hop on the track and run 12x400M (3 miles) then why does running a 5K (3.1 miles) cause him pause? This is likely both a perception and pacing issue. The perception portion of this is that a race is somehow going to be pushed harder than a regular track workout. Well, here’s the thing, that would be a good thing. If the racing environment got more intensity out the workout, then it probably is going to yield more benefit to the runner’s fitness. And from a pacing perspective, the runner just needs to understand the difference in pacing 12x400M and 1×5,000M — which is a subtle difference at best.
— Third, racing is good for you. Putting aside issues of pacing for a moment, putting yourself into races is good for you. It teaches racing skills, such as the ability to read other runners, pace in groups, read your own body and go through a warm-up routine. All of these things that we’re talking about here — the ownership of your workout and pacing — are practiced in races. So the more racing you do, the better honed your skills become and this opens up more opportunities to run races like this to benefit your fitness.
I know, I know. You’re thinking, ‘Coach Joe is writing another piece on pacing.’ (You’re correct.) And that he’s going to tell us how important it is to pace ourselves during races. (Also correct.) But I promise I’m taking a different look at pacing today, so bear with me.
I’m a big proponent of runners really knowing their race pace — training enough at it so that it is ingrained in their memories and that it almost becomes a part of their subconscious on race day. I say it all the time — practice your goal pace so that you know what it feels like and then you can just go out and do it in your race.
This weekend, I demonstrated for myself why this is so important. Let me tell you the story.
I was running in my first 5,000M race on a track. I’ve run more 5K road races than I can count, but I’d never run one on the track. I had a fairly good idea of the pace that I needed to run to meet my goal — I wanted to run about 1:17-1:18 per lap. This would have brought me in about 15 seconds faster than my road PR in the 5K and I really thought I could run this.
There were a number of my friends in the race, so before-hand we talked about the pace and there was an agreement that most of the group was going for this particular pace target. That was good, because it meant that I could follow along and let the group do the pacing. That’s always nice, but this is also where “pace yourself” starts to become important.
There was a fairly large field assembled for the race — at least 30 runners I would say — and at least 10 of them were going to try to run in the 16:00 range — so it was a quality field. The race got underway and the front group stayed together right about on pace through the first 400M. But then the group broke up and I was left with a decision to make. I hadn’t really thought about looking at my own watch on the splits and I was running behind someone that I know who runs about the same speed that I do. I also know that he is a good pacer with a solid sense of pacing. I made a decision to stick on him and let him do the pacing.
I’ve had the good fortune recently to race against some very talented groups of runners. There are differences between running against a set of seasoned athletes and a more typical field of road racers made up of different skill levels. You might instantly think that what I’m talking about is speed, but it is smarts that sets these folks apart.
Let me give you an example. In one of the last races that I ran, it immediately became clear that one runner was far and away faster than the rest of the field. In the USATF Northwest Mile Championships, a runner burst out front in the first 100M of the race and do you know what happened next? No one chased him down. There were certainly people in the group that must have gone into the race thinking that they would go out as hard as possible and stay with the leader as long as they could. And even with this race being at most five minutes long, no one attempted to go with him.
Were these runners not being aggressive? Were they giving-in just seconds into the race? Were they throwing in the towel at the start of Round 1? No. They were being smart. There was a recognition that the lead runner’s speed was just beyond what they were capable of, even for such a short distance.
With less experienced athletes, what we might have seen was a “just go for it” attitude. But what would have happened was that these runners would have gone out so hard that soon they would have burned out and then hit the wall. These more experienced runners recognize this fact and immediately adjusted their plans to fit the new information they had about the race.
Brian writes in with a pretty common question that I’d like to explore a bit today:
“My brother Greg and I just ran the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, MA. 5 weeks out, we both ran a 20 miler. 3 weeks out we both raced a hilly course of about 11 miles + plus some extra miles for a total of 16 miles. We were scheduled to run a 20 miler that three weeks out (Hal Higdon).
We both were running strong and on pace for a 3:20 marathon. At mile 17, we both had leg problems. I had a lockup with the outside of my right thigh (IT band?). My brother Greg had heavy legs. We struggled to finish at 4:00. We both had 2 easy, but faster miles in the beginning of the race at a 7:30 pace. Very frustrating. Where did we go wrong in our training?”
When I get questions like this, I would usually think about four different lines of inquiry to get to the bottom of the problem. You give me some good clues above, but we’d probably need a little more information to get definite with the answer. Here’s a bit of what I see in your question and the things that I’d look at.
The first thing I would normally look at is the pacing of your long runs and their relationship to the pacing in your race. What often happens is that runners will do an 18 or 20 miler at say 8:30 pace and then run the first half of their marathon at a faster pace — say 8:00 minutes per mile. Running faster in the race than in your training is a sure-fire way to have your legs give out on on you at mile 17 in a marathon. Your pace in your goal-paced runs should be the same pace that you plan to run in the marathon. This helps build the repetition in the muscles to reproduce that pace consistently on race day.
Dan writes in with the following question about the correct pace for what we would call the “long/slow run” — which is the longer, easier, effort that usually comes in the weeks between our long goal paced runs. Here’s Dan’s question:
I have been training for a ~3:00 marathon this cycle which is about a 6:52/mile. From what I understand I should be running my long/easy runs at about 1:00 to 1:30 a mile slower than goal pace. However, when I run this pace I just feel out of place and I’d swear that I am more prone to injury and feel more aches and pains at this slower pace. My stride just doesn’t feel right unless I am running about 7:40 or less and I find that I run a lot of my longer runs with a 7:25-7:30 pace which according to definition as I understand it might be classified as junk mileage. I even struggle to slow down enough on my recovery runs to a 8:15 or greater pace. The only thing that I have tried to do differently in the last 6-8 weeks is to shorten up my stride and pick up my leg turnover.
What you’re describing Dan is something that we’ve heard a lot from more experienced runners. Our typical guidance is that runners should aim to do their long-slow runs at a range of about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes slower than their marathon goal paced runs. Sometimes people feel that this is too slow and they actually are a bit uncomfortable taking the pace so easy.
Let’s just do a quick refresh on why we want to slow these runs down. We’re working out runs in tandem across a two-week cycle with one week being a shorter goal-paced run and then the other week being a longer slower run. When you put these together you get two benefits: 1) a recovery time of two weeks between goal-paced efforts and 2) the extended duration of the long-slow runs that produces more “time on feet”. If you want to read more about training intensities, see our series on training intensities.
When dealing with precision pacing – Do you adjust for conditions such as the wind? The wind in Dallas has been blowing at 15 – 30 miles an hour during the last few weeks. Needless to say I have not been able to hit my target pace during the runs although my times have improved running into the wind.
During The Dallas Half marathon – My mile times ranged from 9:00 to 9:10 per mile with the exception of mile 7 (uphill for Dallas) (9:45) – mile 8 (uphill) (9:30) and mile 9 (downhill) (9:25). My goal was to finnish in 2 hours – finished in 2 hours and 20 seconds – In precision pacing do you adjust for hills?
Great question Billy. The answer is yes, we do need to make adjustments to pace to take into consideration external factors, such as heat, headwinds and hills. These conditions impact the effort level at which we run a particular pace. Attempting to run the same pace under all conditions wouldn’t take into account this increase in effort level to overcome wind-resistance or the tug of gravity as we haul ourselves up a large hill.
Alright marathon runners, it’s time to get serious about our pacing. It’s been awhile since we’ve discussed pacing and this time we’re going to look at how close is close enough when it comes to workouts and race pace.
The great rock band Boston once sang a song called “More than a Feeling” and we ask, when does pacing turn into something more than just a feeling and to ultimate precision.
On this week’s episode, Coaches Joe and Dean spend our 10 minutes discussing:
— How close is close enough when it comes to pacing?
— Is it better to be too fast or too slow in our workouts?
— What will precision pacing gain you in your next marathon?
— What level of runners are we talking about when it comes to seeking out precision in their workouts?
To visit our video pages with links to all of the episodes in the series, go to:
Season 1 Video Page
Running Advice and News
Runners we’re back with another episode of our weekly video series. Coaches Joe and Dean are together again talking about all things that have to do with marathon running.
On this week’s episode we tackle a vexing topic for many runners: marathon pace groups – are they good or bad?
— What are marathon pace groups?
— Are they useful or not?
— How should you decide if you’re going to run in a pace group?
— Are they likely to help or hurt your marathon performance?
And Coach Joe gives some input directly to pace group leaders as well.
To visit our video pages with links to all of the episodes in the series, go to:
Season 1 Video Page
Running Advice and News