By Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS
One of the most common errors committed by novice as well as experienced racers is pacing inappropriately in the early stages of a race. In a long race, like a marathon or half marathon, this can be a devastating mistake.
I evaluated the split profiles of the top three males in the 2011 NYC marathon. Their paces, calculated every 5k of the race, varied no more than a few seconds throughout the race. All three of them had a slower first 5k (about 14 sec a mile slower than their eventual average for the race), then for the next 25k they ran splits that were within +/- 3 seconds per mile (and right on their overall race average pace) and then sped up in the final stages of the race. In sharp contrast, compare this to the performance of the runners further back in the pack, there was a huge difference in their 5K splits. A male runner in the 35-39 age group who placed in the middle of his age group and in the second quintile of finishers overall had a pace profile that varied as much as a minute and forty-seven seconds per mile. His fastest 5k was the first 5k and he ran that a minute and six seconds per mile faster than his overall average. Each 5k was slower than the previous one with the exception of a slight surge in the last 2k. This pattern is all too common - I just pulled a random middle-of-the pack runner to do this calculation - I'm sure there are worse examples of pace errors than this one!
This difference points to one of the most common mistakes I see among runners: going out too fast in the first 5k, and fading out in the later stages of the race.
So, how do you avoid this? Doing drills on the track are a great way to enhance pace awareness. Athletes who are familiar with track workouts often refer to them as "speedwork" and that's an accurate description, but the speed you're working on can vary depending on the race you're training for. Are you training for a 5K? Then learning the feel of your 5k pace in a controlled environment like a track is a good training stimulus. Are you training for a marathon? It's important to learn what your proper marathon pace feels like. If all your training is done at either "easy" pace (valuable for base building) or at 5k pace (valuable for building your maximum aerobic capacity), but you don't take some time to practice your marathon pace in training... then how will you KNOW you're hitting your marks on race day? You'll know after you've checked your split at the 5K mark, but at that point it may be too late; you may have been pulled along by the energy of the crowd and now you've run your first 5k at a pace that's possibly 30 seconds a mile (or more) faster than you intended. This error can cost you a minute or more per mile in the later stages of the race.
One of my favorite pace awareness drills is the 400-meter repeat. I like this format - even for marathon pace - you can check your watch each time around the track and carefully dial in the effort and rhythm until you're locked in on the proper pace. Once you do, you can work on sustaining this steady effort by stretching the intervals to 800-meter repeats or mile repeats. Again, doing this on a track allows you to check in after every lap or 400 meters, and dial the pace in tightly, so you can consistently nail the pace (within 1-2 seconds per 400-meter lap). Remember, those elite marathoners were varying no more than 3 seconds per mile over a distance of more than 15 miles! If you vary by 2 seconds per 400-meter lap, you can be sure that you'll be able to sustain a pace that varies by just about 8 seconds per mile.