If you are just starting to run, you might find it difficult to control your pace and find the “sweet spot” where your pace feels comfortable. Even as a seasoned runner, you may still start out too fast in races or workouts only to crash and burn before the finish line. Learning to pace yourself properly is a cornerstone of distance running, but it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Before we dive into methods you can use to practice proper pacing, it’s important to understand WHY you may have trouble finding your rhythm in the first place. There are physical and psychological mechanisms we have no conscious control over. So, rather than get discouraged, when you start your workout or race too quickly, you can simply blame it on biology.
Immediately before the start of a workout or race, your body releases a surge of adrenaline. This isn’t a bad thing, but this surge can alter our perception of both time and effort. This causes us to feel stronger than we actually are for longer than we would normally be able to maintain the effort level.
There is also something called the peak-end theory, which suggests that what you remember from past runs isn’t the workout as a whole. The mental imprint you retain is from the point of maximum effort and then the rush of dopamine you experience at the end. In short, the brain effectively blocks out the rest of the workout in favor of the fast stuff, making it difficult for you to create a realistic framework of how the workout actually felt. This is partially why even experienced runners are unable to control their pace in the early stages of a race.
Further, everyone has a deep psychological drive to either outrun the tiger chasing you or at least outrun the closest person. Knowing these mechanisms come into play during your workout will give you the ability to recognize when they might be taking over, and allow you to work to override them in order to settle back into your proper pace.
Fleet Feet spoke to Annette Aho, a Pittsburgh-based running coach who works with athletes of all ability levels. Aho focuses on three major biological feedback cues you can use to remain mindful of your body’s effort level.
“Consistent pacing translates to sustainability, which is why pacing is such an important skill to learn,” Aho says. “When we talk about sustainability in endurance sports, we are talking about how efficiently you can train your body to utilize oxygen. The longer you want to run, the more consistent pacing will benefit you.”
Your breath is the best indicator of effort or exertion. In order to run at a consistent, sustainable pace for a long period of time, you need to keep your breathing under control. Your breathing rate will give you an accurate indication of heart rate, and, for most workouts, your heart rate should be lower than 80 percent of maximum.
The easiest way to figure out your effort level is by using the “talk test.” If you can carry on a conversation with your running partner and can comfortably tell a story without feeling short of breath, you are right around 60 percent of maximum effort.
If you are still able to chat during your run, but go back and forth with your partner in sentences (rather than paragraphs) you are closer to 70 percent. Once you move from paragraphs to sentences, and then to single words or short phrases you are creeping up on the 80 percent threshold and should scale back your effort. That is, unless you are running a race, time trial or other hard effort.
Aho emphasizes “steady, rhythmic and deep” breaths. “This allows the runner to get in tune with their breath and body,” she says. “After the awareness is established, the runner can begin matching their steps to their breathing pattern.”
Cadence is a measurement of leg turnover, or revolutions, per minute. A higher turnover does not always correlate with a faster pace, nor does a lower turnover express a slower pace. In fact, most runners have a tendency to reach the legs forward on each stride. This is metabolically costly and requires more effort to maintain.
Taking more, but shorter, strides helps give you a greater degree of control over your level of exertion because shorter strides are more efficient, both from a metabolic (energy conservation) and a biomechanical (movement pattern) perspective.
Shorter strides encourage a midfoot landing that engages the quadriceps and glutes, which are the largest and most dominant muscle groups during running. When you reach with your legs, your body lands on the heels and is forced into a pulling movement that originates in the hamstrings. But when running, the hamstrings should provide stability and balance, not act as the dominant muscle group.
Being mindful of your cadence, and how different cadences affect your effort and pace, can help you learn the precise leg turnover you will need to run a longer distance at a more comfortable effort. It’s important to tune in to your footsteps, so you can hear your foot hitting the ground with each stride. If you run with headphones, try to leave them at home every few days and focus on cultivating this brain-body connection.
As you think about your stride, imagine your body is using shorter strides to activate rear wheel drive instead of using longer strides in front wheel drive.
“Once the runner is comfortable with their breathing technique, they can start focusing on the actual steps they are taking,” says Aho. “Showing the runner the difference between three different paces, and then reinforcing the pace you want them to run consistently will help them make the mind-to-muscle connection needed. This is best demonstrated on a treadmill, where the athlete is forced to keep a certain cadence to match the speed of the treadmill.”
While there is no right way to run—every runner’s stride is as unique as their fingerprints!—there are general rules you should be aware of during your workouts. One of the easiest ways to identify a pace that is too aggressive is to monitor your mechanics. Are your footsteps getting louder as your feet start to slap the ground? Has your arm swing become more dramatic or is your head wobbling all over the place?
These are all mechanical cues that your level of effort exceeds your body’s level of fitness, and you need to slow your pace. If your form transitions from smooth and efficient to “sloppy and choppy,” you are exceeding your body’s current capacity. Just like your breath, try to keep your mechanics under control in order to extend the duration of your workout.
Aho has her runners focus on a few key components of good running form: foot strike, turnover rate (cadence), torso position and glute activation.
Having a fitness tracker or GPS watch like a Garmin is also a handy tool, but should not be used as a crutch. For the most part, you probably check your pace against your watch only after you start to feel fatigued, which is typically too late.
“The watch should serve the runner, not the other way around,” says Aho. “If a runner is relying too heavily on their watch for pacing, I would challenge the athlete to practice running off effort with no watch at all. Or, turning their watch settings to silent, and practicing a pacing workout and checking their splits afterwards.”
Using these biofeedback tools, in addition to a digital readout of pace as a comparison, can teach you to balance our perceived level of effort with our pace. This helps develop a fundamental, intrinsic understanding of proper pacing. Learning proper pacing is a lifelong discipline, but the more you practice mindfulness the more effective you will be.
By Timothy Lyman. Timothy Lyman is a health and wellness professional specializing in program development and management. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise and a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.