One of the most important aspects of distance running/racing is an understanding of proper pace. What distinguishes an experienced, knowledgeable runner from a newbie is the savvy racer runs the correct pace and the beginner often doesn’t.
Regardless of your level of skill or experience, the greatest mistake for just about every runner is to go out too fast in the beginning of a run or race because you feel fresh and good. Unfortunately, when you start a run or race too fast (i.e., a pace you can’t sustain), you end up slowing down so much that you lose much more time than if you had started a little slower and ran consistently from the start.
Running under control at the proper pace is the key. Especially in races. Go out too fast and it destroys any chance you might have of running a good race. On the other hand, a solid race is one which is evenly paced or one with a narrow negative split (the second half is slightly faster than the first half). The way you determine proper pace is by practicing it at your speed workouts.
In prior articles, we have described various speed workouts, including one for a typical 3:30 marathoner. That 3:30 marathoner knows that the correct split for 10-K effort should be 54 seconds per 200 meters. But, hitting this split is more than just just going out and checking your watch. Instead, you should be monitoring your effort by asking yourself: How does the effort feel at this split? How is my breathing? Is my stride length OK? Can you hold this pace for a 10-K? Are you pushing it too much or not enough?
This is how you get to know yourself and come to an understanding of what you can run comfortably—and, just as importantly, what you can’t. The experienced runner will go out at a pace that can be sustained over the course of the workout, realizing that on a great day the pace can pick up a little on the second half of the race or workout. In contrast, the newbie takes off at too fast a pace, thinking there might be more speed than there really is.
If that sounds like you, change your effort or rhythm accordingly and your body will remember what effort it is supposed to give. Adjust immediately if your pace is off at the beginning of the workout or race, but once on pace, your body will run it consistently, and you won’t even need to look at your watch. At this point, you are becoming an accomplished runner.
By running consistent well-paced efforts, you’ll get to know what marathon pace feels like as compared to 5-K or 10-K effort. You confirm your effort with the time on the watch, but the feel is much more important than the time split. By doing so, your workout will be much more beneficial than going out too fast and struggling to finish.
Knowing how much effort to give for the distance and then sticking to it until the end, is truly the joy of running. When you hit it right, it can be an exhilarating experience as you pass people at the end of a workout or race. It is absolutely much better to be a little conservative at the start and then making for it in the second half of a race or workout when others are slowing down.
Everybody knows the deflating experience of running out of gas in a race and workout and struggling to the finish. In contrast, there’s no better feeling in running than to finish a workout or race strongly and be able to extend it all the way to the finish, passing all the others who went out too fast.
Mac Allen coaches Team Mac (www.teammac.co) for runners who race in distances from 800 meters through the ultramarathons. A top-flight masters competitor himself, Mac has over 15 years of coaching experience.