Getting your Pace right

Having been an official Pacer for the last 5 years I am often asked “how do you get your pace right”? I have not always been good at pacing myself, and spent many years throwing myself into races with no idea how to pace myself. I have learnt more through my own mistakes, and want to share some of my experiences and stories in the hope this will help you pace yourself.

This is not a blog about being a Pacer, and is merely my advice, and I’m not qualified to give advice, but here it goes anyway…

Learn from your mistakes:

Don’t go off too fast
If you don’t get your Pace right you can suffer for it

It is ok to make mistakes, and to be honest you learn from these much more than hearing from other people. But I have probably made most of the common mistakes in the past, so hopefully hearing about my experiences can help you avoid some of them. This picture is me after Brighton Marathon in 2013. I made numerous mistakes during this race, below I will list them and a few more bits of advice.

Don’t go off too fast:

This is one of the most common mistakes people make, especially when trying for a PB or going for a longer distance. The longer the event the easier it is to go off too fast. It’s like the tortoise and the hare fable, and I think everyone is guilty of doing this, at least once.

Getting the Pace right wins over speed every time

It’s simple when you think about it, and if you think about it like this you are less likely to make this mistake. You can’t sprint a marathon. Just like you wouldn’t pace yourself on a hundred metre sprint, you would go all out. So, whatever the distance you are running make sure you set off at the desired pace.

Naturally the further you are running the easier the pace will feel at the beginning, as you will not be pushing yourself as hard as you can. Just remember the distance you have to travel and remember you are slowing yourself down for a reason. If you go too hard at the beginning you will most definitely end up burning out, which can be known as hitting the wall. This is when you deplete your glycogen stores, and staying within your aerobic threshold (by controlling your pace) is one way to avoid this.

It is easy to go off too fast in the excitement of the start line, running alongside those faster than you, or those also going off too fast. You may get away with it for a short distance, but if you go off too fast you will most likely suffer later on. By controlling your pace you will have a much more enjoyable experience.

Know your pace:

It is so important to know your target to set your pace. Some people get very secretive around their target time, and many claim that they don’t have a target, they “just want to finish”. Now regardless of your time, there is nothing wrong with “just finishing”. I would however argue that it is important to have an idea of your target to understand your capabilities.

No idea how fast you are going? There is a better way

If you set off with no idea about your pace you are making it much harder for yourself. Don’t be fooled that a relaxed approach, and not caring about the time will make it easier. If you just set off running and don’t have an idea about pace you will not get the most out of the run. You are more likely to push too fast early on and slow down later on, and that is much harder than keeping a steady pace.

Practice desired pace:

We all learn and all improve, keep practicing and become the expert

It may sound pretty obvious, but once you have an idea of your target time, and know what pace you want to run, then practice. If you know your pace it will be easier to stick to it, and your body will get used to it.

Your body will adapt and get used to a pace, and as you improve you will find it easier. It may be that at this point it’s time to increase your pace, but by feeling confident at a pace for a shorter period it will be easier to keep to it for a longer distance.

Stick to your Pace:

My splits from Berlin Marathon 2017

There are a couple of points to make here. First of all the obvious; consistent pacing. I am a fan of an even split, this is always what I try to do when pacing. Keeping a steady pace is the best way, in my opinion, to achieve your very best time. You can deploy a kick at the end when you know there is not much left to do to get a slight negative split.

Some argue that a negative split, running the second half faster than the first, is the best way. Apart from the sprint finish I’m not sold on this. I always believe with this approach you may have sacrificed time at the beginning.

Paris Marathon 2015, I went too hard, messed up the pace and didn’t hit my target

An approach I strongly recommend avoiding is the positive split. This is what many of us have done, and what I have done numerous times. This is where you go harder at the beginning hoping to “Bank” some time for the end. To be honest if you get this perfect and pull it off you may just well get a PB, as you will be pushing to your limit. However more often than not you will end up tiring before the end and watch those extra few minutes at the start that you “banked” disappear.

I am yet to achieve a sub 3 marathon. I’ve not tried for years now, but when I was in the shape to achieve this, my pacing was terrible. I went out too hard, I tired, and then when I knew my target had drifted away I just gave up and slowed. Brighton 2013, Berlin 2014 and Paris 2015 were my serious attempts, and each time I failed to stick to my pace. In London 2013 I got my PB by sticking to the plan. In the other attempts I was on for a considerably better time, I just went too fast, I got cocky, I messed up my pace.

Know what you want to achieve and stick to it…

The second point I want to make about sticking to your pace is about your intent when going into the race. Ask yourself, what is your target? I’ve had many people tell me they want X time, so they will start off at X – 15. This is not logical. What is your target, if it is sub4 for example, run at a pace that will get you in at 3:59. Don’t run at a pace that will get you in at 3:45, as if you haven’t trained for this it is very unlikely to happen and will not end well. Trust me, I’ve been there. If however your training goes well and you think you can achieve more, then adjust your target.

Don’t doubt yourself, be confident

Don’t set off faster than you think you can achieve, but if you think you can achieve more then be confident and go and do it. Disguising your target with a slower one is not a great strategy as you will not pace correctly but also you are not being confident. Your mind will give up before your body does, so staying confident that you can achieve your goal will keep your mind going for longer.

Train fast:

Although it is important to practice your target pace, I am a strong believer of shorter faster runs in training. Whatever your pace, train faster, this will make it easier on the day.

Add speed to your workout

When your body adapts to running at a faster pace, you improve, then you can run faster. As you get used to running at a higher intensity, the lower intensity will become relatively easier. When training for a PB I always like to do a couple of speed sessions a week to push improvements and to ensure that my target pace feels more comfortable. A parkrun, or quick short distance max effort run, or intervals are good for speed training. But don’t always train fast, give your body plenty of time to recover with steady runs.

Run with a Pacer

Manchester Marathon 2017 with a happy group at the start

Now of course I was going to mention following a Pacer. I must admit that it may not be for everyone, as some people just want to do their own thing. However the whole idea of following a Pacer is that they will run at a consistent pace, and this will allow you to take your mind off it.

The end of London Marathon 2017, bang on target

A good Pacer will do more than just keep you at a steady pace. They will keep you motivated throughout your run. Also, those running around you will be aiming for a similar sort of time, so you can surround yourself with people all striving to achieve the same time, and you can support and motivate each other.

Having fun pacing Hackney Half Marathon 2017

It’s been said before, so will I will throw this out there… NO following a Pacer is not cheating. We do not carry you, we do not do any of the running for you. YOU will have to put all the effort in still, and it is you and you alone that will achieve the time.

The first step is to believe in yourself 

Whether you use the Pacer as a guide, for a bit of motivation, or to take your mind off things, they are there to help. I try to have a bit of fun as I find making running enjoyable makes it feel easier, subtle distraction techniques I use help people get to the end of the event without as much perceived effort.

Be prepared:

Getting your Pace right will have a lot to do with preparation. When you have all the above sorted, you have trained for it and you deploy a good pacing strategy, don’t forget all the other variables. Think about your fuelling strategy; stay hydrated; know the course and know if you want to slow on the big hills or keep going at the same speed.

Try to sleep like a baby

Sleep well the night before and give yourself the best chance of keeping at your target pace.

Don’t get carried away:

So everything is going well, you have prepared well, you are pacing well… don’t get carried away. This all depends on the distance you are running, but the further you go the easier it will be to get carried away. Remember how far you have to go, and only push harder when you know you can get to the end at that pace. The last thing you want to do is throw it all away when you get towards the end. I’ve been there personally, and I see it so often when pacing. There are those that start with a Pacer, and those that keep ahead of us. Then there are those that go harder, get carried and I pick them up along the way. There is no better feeling than giving someone a tap on the shoulder and giving them the boost they need to keep going. But this can all be avoided if you don’t get too carried away.

Encouraging the final few to hang on at Birmingham Marathon 2017

How do I know the right pace?

I often get asked how you know what the right pace is. This is a really tricky one, and only you know what pace your are capable of. If you have been training for a target time then you should know the correct pace for you, but this can change during training as you make progress, and you will feel this. You should always feel like you are nearing your limit, unless of course you are training and not pushing yourself to hit the best time you can. I have a pretty simple rule of thumb to judge your pace:

Ask yourself one question, can I hold this pace until the end?

If the answer is yes, you can probably afford to pick up the Pace a little more. If the answer is no then you should ease back to avoid burning out. If the answer is maybe, maybe… well you are probably at the right pace. When pushing yourself to your limit there will always be an element of doubt, but you are more capable than you believe. Your mind will always give up before your body (except for injury) so when your body is screaming at you to stop, believe you can keep going. You need to listen to your body and understand the difference between an injury and a tired body. If your body is telling you that you are tired and need to drop the pace then stay strong and fight the mental battle. If you are mentally strong you can take your body beyond what you think is capable.

You can do it 

Believe in yourself.


15 thoughts on “Getting your Pace right

  1. A good read!
    Must admit I’m not 100% sure on ‘know your pace’. I don’t know my pace for any distance but I do know my effort. I know what feels right from start to end. If it’s a flat course I usually get a consistent pace …But I only know this after the race.
    Perhaps pace and effort are intertwined

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    1. Most certainly and effort is a great way to judge Pace.

      There are many (like FINK) that advocates running to effort, or heart rate threshold running. I’ve always considered high intensity training as a good way to make running lower intensity feel easier.

      By know your pace , I think it’s good to have an idea of what you expect to achieve. By doing this you can stop yourself getting carried away and burning out.

      Glad you enjoyed my blog 💪👍

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  2. Great blog and advice Paul. After I ran with the pacers (you) on the Runfest Kew 10k (thanks btw – helped me get that 44:45 PB👍🏻), I went on to do the Thames Meander Marathon. Even paced all the way to 33k then slowly and painfully hit the wall. Was my first, any advice on race day that would help?

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    1. Thank you. It is so great to hear from people that have ran with me.

      Take a look at my blog “so you want to run a marathon” published in May. Full of tips for race day and marathon.

      The reality is for your first marathon it is going to be tough. I think you will be surprised how much different it will feel next time having done it once before. The dynamics have changed in your favour.

      When is your next and what is your target time?

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  3. Hi! Great article Paul :o) I can relate to a lot of what you have written about. I don’t run with a club (used to years ago) and enjoy running on my own mostly. I have half marathon numbers 6 and 7 booked next year having said “never again” after number 1! But I have really learned to love my running through doing things to help me improve that I love. I cross train with spin, weights and squash and try to fit in a treadmill interval/speed session once a week and a hill interval session every other week. When it comes to races I get super nervous. Super nervous! This affects my breathing, my legs, my bowels, my pacing…which put me off running in races of any distance. But I have taught myself some breathing techniques (for the start line!) and have try not be hard on myself and enjoy it! The achievement of crossing that line now outweighs what time I did it in. I’m still chuffed if I run a good time of get a PB but this is far from my mind when I step up to that start line.
    I have learnt about eating correctly, hydrating enough and planning ahead. The one tool I have in my kit is that I’m pretty good at keeping an even pace = even splits = a good rhythm throughout the run be it3 miles or 13.1 miles. An even pace means I can find that groove and my body knows what I want from it. If there is a little left in the tank at the end then I might speed up for the last half mile or so. The only other tip I would give is set out your own pace, your planned pace, don’t get sucked in to the crowd of people around you and don’t panic when you see people rushing past you at mile 1,4 or even 6. Let them get on with what ever race plan they do (or mostly likely don’t) have. I usually end up passing them anyway :o)

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  4. A great blog. I always enjoy reading your writing. My recent experience of running a half was that I thought I would do 2:10 and if I was feeling good I might manage at best 2:06. The first 10km were basically uphill and me and my running partner (I need someone with me for longer distances) ran this quicker than we anticipated. We were both feeling good and in the end kept the pace going and finished in 2:03 which felt amazing. I know people say listen to your body and for me that was great advice. I never felt as if I was pushing too hard. The last few miles were into a strong wind but we kept going. There was nothing left in the tank at the end but that was fine.

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    1. Thank you and well done for your achievement. It’s important to pace well, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go hard and the key point here is listening to your body. Sometimes everything just clicks and you can go harder and this is when PB come 💪

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  5. Question: if you’ve never run the whole distance at your goal pace, how do you know if you can hold it? Shorter distance race times?

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    1. That’s a really good question, and regardless of what ANYONE says, it really depends on you. I personally think a lot of it comes from confidence and the more training you do the better. There are predictors out there that suggest what pace you should be running, but people excel at different distances.

      Based on previous distances you should start with a rough time (usually by doubling time if you double distance and add a bit). Then think about what you think you can realistically work towards.
      With varied training you should know how that pace will be. I find doing Long slow runs means your body will be used to distance. By doing shorter and faster running your body will be able to deal with slower running with less perceived effort. When you put the two together it is down to determination and confidence. The best predictor is your last experience… obviously you want to do your best in your first, but don’t worry too much, when you do it again you will have an idea where you can push and what you are capable of.

      You won’t always have a perfect race, even when training has gone to plan… learn what works from you and try to enjoy the journey, enjoy the downs as well as the ups, as it brings you back stronger

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