Pace Yourself to a Personal Best

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A big thank you to Andrew Renfree, Principal Lecturer in Sport & Exercise Science, University of Worcester, for putting this together for our runners.

If you have entered the Worcester 10k you may have been motivated to do so for any one of a number of possible reasons. However, it is probably safe to assume that a large proportion of the runners on the start line in September will be aiming to get around the course as quickly as possible, and perhaps achieve a personal best (pb).

This goal will be what motivates you to train regularly in all weathers, watch your nutrition, and ensure you get enough sleep in preparation for the big day. However, doing all this work is unlikely to be enough if you are to run as fast as you are capable. This work will certainly get you ‘fit’, but an often overlooked determinant of how you perform is how well you distribute your effort (or pace yourself) over the course of the event. Doing so effectively is difficult to achieve in practice, but runners who are able to do so will be able to maximise the beneficial effects of all their training. The purpose of this article is to outline the key findings of research into the role of pacing on endurance performance that has been performed at the University of Worcester, and to offer some simple practical suggestions that you may incorporate into your training that may assist you in learning to pace yourself more effectively.

Perhaps the most important thing to emphasise is that most runners pace themselves badly, and as a result don’t achieve the performances of which they are capable. Interestingly, this seems to be the case even with elite runners. In an analysis of participants in the women’s marathon race at the 2009 World Athletics Championships (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23006811) we not surprisingly found that athletes with faster pb’s tended to finish in front of athletes with slower best times. Whilst this is may be expected, further analysis demonstrated that the slower athletes finished further behind the faster athletes than they should have based on their pb’s. The size of this discrepancy between the pb’s of the leading athletes and those who finished behind increased with finishing position. When looking for the reason for this phenomenon, a big clue was provided by looking at the split times of athletes. The key finding was that all athletes, regardless of pb, started at very similar speeds in the first few kilometres. Whilst the best athletes were able to maintain this pace for the duration of the race, the slower athletes tended to progressively slow down, presumably because there were physiological consequences of their overly ambitious starting speeds. Remember, that these were elite athletes representing their national federations. Nonetheless this phenomenon has subsequently been described on several occasions and with runners of all levels.

A simple explanation for these observations is that at the start of a race runners have to decide how fast to run. To fully consider all the relevant variables is a very complicated process, so it is much easier to simply do the same as everybody else. The end result is that everybody ends up running at very similar speeds until eventually the less fit runners can’t keep up any longer and they need to slow down substantially if they are to reach the finish line. Ultimately this ends up with athletes displaying what is called ‘positive’ pacing characterised by a first half run more quickly than the second. Unfortunately we know from laboratory trials and analyses of elite athletes, that in endurance events performance is nearly always optimised through even pacing or a ‘negative’ strategy where the second half is run faster than the first.

Simply being aware of this phenomenon is likely to be hugely beneficial to you as you prepare for your event. When you are on the start line you will at least be armed with the knowledge that what most other people are about to do may not be the optimal for you. However, there are a few other simple things that you can incorporate into training that may also improve your pacing ability.

The first suggestion is very obvious, and is that you should simply ensure that you become familiar with the paces you aspire to race at during some of your training sessions. Obviously you cannot perform the bulk of your training at race speeds, and most of it will need to be much slower. However, if you do no training at this speed, not only will you be failing to adequately prepare yourself for the physiological demands of the event, it  will simply feel ‘alien’ to you on race day and you will be unable to accurately assess your levels of effort. This is important, as your perception of effort seems to be a key component in the ability to regulate pace throughout an event.

The second suggestion is that you become familiar with running over the distance at which you want to race (in this case 10km). The fancy scientific term for the way in which pacing is believed to be regulated is ‘teleoanticipation’. Although it sounds complicated, the basic idea is that you can only pace yourself properly if you know exactly how far you have to go. Your brain uses this information in its assessment of the degree of disruption to your physiology as you are running. If the brain thinks you are at risk of some kind of physiological damage if you try to maintain your current running speed until the end point, then you will experience sensations of fatigue and need to slow down to reduce the risk of harm. As you become more experienced of running over a certain distance you become more skilled at distributing your effort effectively. Ultimately this means that whilst combining long ‘over distance’ running with short running at higher speeds may cover your physiological basis, you probably need to also become accustomed to running relatively quickly over the actual race distance in order to develop your pacing ‘skill’.

By becoming aware of the issues presented above, and incorporating some of the practical suggestions into your preparation, you are likely to enhance your ability to pace yourself effectively and thereby maximise the benefits you have gained from all of your hard physical training. Nearer  race day we will present some more ideas that you may wish to utilise that may allow you to better stick to your best laid plans once the gun fires. In the meantime, if you would like further information on any ideas presented here, or are perhaps interested in participating in any future research studies, please feel free to contact myself at a.renfree@worc.ac.uk

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DS Media + Events is the brainchild of Steve Cram, who heads a team who have extensive experience in event organisation, delivery and marketing of major sporting events, as well as broadcasting and the media. Steve, former international athlete, World Record holder and Olympic medallist is also director of Extra Mile, which has acted as consultant to numerous major running events such as the Bristol Half Marathon, Jane Tomlinson’s Run For All and has organised the elite road races at the Middlesbrough 10K.