Train to Pace, Win the Race?

by | Updated: December 3rd, 2016 | Read time: 3 minutes

Go hard or go home. PR or ER. Ever heard one of these irrational war chants as you toe the start line of a race? Of course, you should push yourself; it’s a race. But if you haven’t prepped your muscles to “go hard,” you’ll end up going home with your head hanging low. Avoid a total blowout by training to pace.

The Importance of Running Pace

Your body on fast

Go all-out too soon, and your body will burn glucose faster than it can clear it out. This may lead to muscle cramping or just plain fatigue. If it happens to be a warm summer day, you could end up raising your core temperature too high, too fast. Speaking from an unforgettable experience, pouring ice water over your head may not be enough to combat overheating – particularly if you aren’t well-hydrated.

Your body on slow

When it comes to running in particular, moving slowly can actually set you up for injury. It sounds counterintuitive, but take a minute to visualize your natural running form. Your arms are moving swiftly forward and backward, no clinched fists. Your stride is smooth, as your knees consistently come up and down without a second thought. Everything is in perfect alignment (or what’s perfect for you). Now turn down the intensity, and you’ll instantly feel out of rhythm. Your steps become an exaggerated movement, which often increases the pounding force on your body. Increased stress = increased risk of injury.

Find the happy-medium

You have more than two speeds. Yes, you can go out as fast as possible or go slow and steady. These are two viable options. However, neither is going to get you the win, or even a personal best. This is where pace comes into play. A study found in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research determined that “In order to optimize 5-km performance, runners should start the initial 1.63 km (1 mile) of a 5-km race at paces 3-6% greater than their current average race pace.” Anything above that would negatively impact the outcome of the race.

Now that you understand the importance of pacing, put it to work with these five steps that will carry you through race day.

  1. Establish your current fitness level – You can base this off of your most recent race time, or you can perform a time trial workout. If a 5K is your goal race and it’s your first one, run a 1-mile time trial, so you have something to work off of.
  2. Set a (reasonable) goal time – Your goal time should be no more than 6% faster than your current fitness level – or you risk overachieving, overtraining or overwhelming your muscles mid-race. You can also use an online pace calculator, which spares runners the number-crunching.
  3. Get a good feel – Test yourself at difference paces — from 5K to marathon pace — and evaluate your rate of perceived exertion at each one. Can you carry a full conversation or are you huffing and puffing trying to get out one word? This will help you recognize your speed come race day without looking at your watch, so you stay within your means.
  4. Train for your goal – This is the hard part, especially if you train with people faster than your current fitness level. They will push you to run harder than you really need – or can handle. When you have tempo workouts scheduled, be sure to keep these at your expected race pace and not 20 seconds faster (or slower).
  5. Trust your training – When race day arrives, trust in your training and follow the plan to a T. Remember, you created a goal time for a reason. That pace carved your path to the start line, so count on it to carry you through the finish.

For long-distance athletes, don’t forget to train your body to take in fuel. Teaching your digestive system to pace itself is just as important as training your muscles. Otherwise, an upset stomach could derail all your efforts. Trust me — race smart and it’s yours to lose.