The best way to learn how to properly pace yourself in a race? Practice. You need to practice your perceived race pace over and over again with the intent of understanding just how fast you can go, and what effort level you can sustain. Let me illustrate with a quick story: When I was competing in my first half-marathon in 2007, I didn’t know what pace I should run, so my coach gave me two different time goals to shoot for: One for an “A” day at 4:36 minutes per mile, and one for a “B” day at 4:42 minutes per mile. I wrote those split times on my hand, so I could see them as I ran.
What happened? I am so grateful that I didn’t pay any attention to those times, and simply listened to my body. That half-marathon was neither an A-day, nor a B-day. Instead, I had one of those days when I just kept feeling better and better, and kept pacing faster. My first mile was around 4:37—my slowest mile of the race. I ended up averaging 4:33 per mile, and setting the American Record with a time of 59:43. That AR would never have happened if I was using splits and time to gauge my pacing.
Experiment with Your Effort
Now you’re probably wondering: If mile-splits aren’t a good gauge, then how do we pace ourselves for a race? The answer is twofold: First, run hard during practices at race speed for distances slightly shorter than the length of the race. For example, go hard for 8 miles if you’re training for a half-marathon, or 3 to 4 miles if you’re doing a 10K. Experiment with varying levels of effort to understand your limits, and to see what you can sustain without slowing as the miles go by.
Watch Your Heart Rate
The second key to learning to pace yourself is to pay attention to your heart rate: It’s one of the most important feedback sources a runner can utilize. Watch your heart rate as you practice, and see what rate you can sustain for several miles. If you exceed that level, slow down. Then, when race day rolls around, you can know you aren’t starting out too fast, as most runners do, because you’ll be able to see that your heart rate isn’t exceeding the desired level you established during training.
Don’t Limit Yourself
The day that I set the half-marathon record, I remember thinking to myself early on, “You are going too fast; you are going to blow up.” From an outsider’s perspective, it was true: No American had ever gone out as fast as I was running…and not blown up. But I also remember thinking, “If you were in practice could you run this same effort for one hour?” I pictured myself then, out on the road where we did all of our hard training, and saw myself running as hard as I was racing—and clearly I knew the answer to my question. Yes, I could sustain the effort—and so I did. I only wish my Fitbit Surge had been out on the market then, because it would have taken the guesswork out of my race pace. Heart rate is a massive key to unlocking your ability to pace any race to perfection.
With all that said, I encourage you to not limit yourself to what you think is possible, but rather check your own heart rate, and your own effort to run your perfect race.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.