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This article originally appeared in Inside Triathlon

Pacing for Better Racing

By Joe Friel and Eric Schwartz

You're at the starting line of a running race, the gun goes off, and your competition sprints ahead. Should you go with them, or stay behind and run your own race? Your best chance for success is to let them go and run even or negative splits. It's easier, faster, more fun—and less painful.

The definition of “even splits” is well understood – your splits each kilometer or mile are about the same. Running “negative splits” means that you are running faster as the race progresses. What does it feel like to run even splits? It's not the same as running an even effort. When running at an even effort, your exertion will feel the same throughout, but your pace will slow. When running at an even pace, your exertion will feel easier early in the race and then gradually become more difficult, but your pace will stay the same.

To support this style of racing, all one has to do is look at world records. Nearly every long distance running world record has been set while running even or negative splits. Of the last five men's world records in the 10,000 meter run, two were run with nearly identical splits for the first 5k and second 5k, and the other three were run with the second 5k being as much as 13 seconds faster than the first 5k. When Paul Tergat broke the marathon world record last fall, he ran the first half of the race in 1:03:04, and the second half in 1:01:51.

The Science of Pacing

To appreciate the importance of proper pacing, it is helpful to understand what is going on in the body. An athlete can run at his or her lactate threshold pace for about an hour or a little more. Most runners can run a 10k at a pace faster than their lactate threshold (if they are finishing in less than an hour). This means that lactic acid will be accumulating throughout the run, and a slight increase in blood lactate will occur throughout the race. Running faster than goal pace will cause an unsustainable increase in lactic acid, and the only way to clear the additional lactic acid is to slow down. According to Neal Henderson, Coordinator of Sports Science at the Boulder Center For Sports Medicine, going too fast causes athletes to “flood their muscles with lactic acid. The lactic acid interferes with muscle contraction and exhibits a classic negative feedback loop, limiting force production. Even if you wanted to, you would not be able to contract the muscle as forcefully.”

Putting it into practice

So how do you learn to run even splits? When you do a running race or start a duathlon, you must have a goal time in mind. Previous races and workouts are your best reference point. If you don't know what to use as a goal, start recording training and race results so you can develop a concept of pacing. Jack Daniel's book, the “Daniels's Running Formula,” has several charts that can help you predict race performances over several distances.

If your goal is to run a 10k in 44:30, you should be running 7:10 each mile. The hardest thing for most runners is to hold back during the first mile when they are highly motivated, perceived effort is lower than usual, and everyone is running fast. Hold back, follow your plan, and you will have a much easier time hitting your goal. You are really racing against the clock, so don't let other runners distract you. Most of them won't have a plan to run their optimum time, and it doesn't make sense to follow them. You can bet that if the others aren't running away from you in the first quarter mile then you went out too fast.

If you are going to race at 7:10 per mile, train at that pace so you know what it feels like. A track is the best place to learn pacing. Run three repeat miles with short recoveries (1 to 3 minutes) at 7:10 pace, and check your splits every 400 meters to ensure you are on pace.

Unusual conditions

On race day be prepared to alter your plan based on the course and the conditions. Hot conditions require that you lower your goal pace. Be conservative as early pacing mistakes are much more costly in the heat. On a hilly course even splits aren't ideal. Uphill miles will be slower than your goal pace and downhill miles will be faster. Avoid the urge to push significantly harder on the uphills, and use downhills to your advantage. Wind will also cause necessary differences in your mile pace.

Duathlons

If you are opening a duathlon with a run, determining a goal time can be difficult. If the race opens with a 5k and you can run a stand-alone 5k in less than 18 minutes, add 30-40 seconds to determine your goal pace for the opening 5k. If you can run an 18-20 minute 5k, add 40-60 seconds to your time. For a 20-22 minute 5k runner, add 60-75 seconds, and if your best 5k run would be more than 22 minutes, add 90 seconds or more to your opening run.

Application to swimming

Experienced swimmers should modify their plan for even splits at the beginning of a triathlon. Wes Hobson has his swimmers start races fast. “If the person wants to do well, they need to go hard the first 300 to 400 meters of an Olympic-distance race. You need to get away from the slower swimmers, and get on the feet of the fast swimmers. Once that's been accomplished its important to settle into an even pace.”

Less experienced swimmers should ignore that advice and swim at their own pace. As in running, it takes practice to know your pace. A pool time trial of 500, 1000, or 1500 yards, monitoring your pace every 200 to 300 yards, will teach proper pacing.

Application to bike time trialing

The best way to pace yourself in a triathlon time trial is with a power meter. With this monitoring device and an idea of your goal pace or watt output, staying on pace becomes much easier. However, knowing that most athletes race without a power meter, the same principles of even splits for a running race should apply. Your time trial will feel easier earlier in the bike leg, and gradually become more difficult throughout. When done correctly, a heart rate monitor will show your heart rate increasing slightly throughout the bike. With a run following the bike, do not reach your maximum effort on the bike.

Conclusion

Running even splits takes some practice and patience. It takes a dedication to your watch, and a feel for your exertion level, so that pacing becomes second nature. Run as though every 10 seconds you run under your goal time in the first half of a race takes away 20 seconds in the second half, because this very often is the case. Once you master this skill your running will become more enjoyable and, more importantly, faster.

Joe Friel is the author of The Triathlete's Training Bible. Eric Schwartz is an Ultrafit coach and competitive multisport athlete. You can contact Eric at eric@duathlon.com. Visit www.ultrafit.com for more information on training and racing.

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