Pacing Yourself for the Long Race

My Brother and I Finishing the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon
My Brother and I Finishing the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon

Today’s post comes from another reader question. Linda, in Hawaii, asks, “What is the best way to pace yourself for a long race?”

Race day pacing can be one of the toughest aspects of endurance competition, even for elite-level pros. Early start times, a poor night’s sleep and confusing logistics at the venue are typical for most races, and they can add to the nervous energy you’re probably already feeling on race day. This energy – whether it feels positive or negative to you – can drastically alter the way you pace yourself, which can sabotage an otherwise carefully-planned race. Luckily, there are a few tips you can follow that will help you run, cycle or swim the smart race you’ve been training for.

1. Get to the Race 30 Minutes Earlier Than You Need To – Note that I didn’t say “30 minutes before the race starts.” That probably won’t give you enough time to get to the starting line feeling like you’re ready to go, unless it’s a relatively small venue that you’re familiar with. Getting to a race early, with everything you need already on your body or in your sweat bag, will help alleviate so much needless stress. That way, if lines are long for the registration tables or the porta-potties (and they always are), you won’t have to worry about whether or not you’ll make it through them before the starting gun goes off.

2. Put Things Into Perspective – Take a deep breath and look around you. Enjoy the day and all of the like-minded individuals who have been crazy enough to get up before sunrise and join you in this adventure. Then remind yourself that you probably aren’t going to win this race, so getting off to a slow start really isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s probably the thing that can help you most.

3. Start Off Slowly – Leading up to race day, you surely calculated what pace you’d have to run/bike/swim to finish in your goal time. You broke that down by mile or km, and you probably have that number in your head as you stand there at the starting line. While you’re standing there, make that number slower by 60-90 seconds for your first mile. If you’re hoping to run a half marathon in 2:20:00, for example, you know that you’ll need to average 10:40 miles. But you should aim to run the first one in 11:40 – 12:10 and no faster! For long races especially, this is an incredibly effective technique, and here’s why:
The first mile of any race is likely to be crowded. At the same time, your adrenaline levels are elevated because it’s race day. Those two factors in combination are likely to cause you to expend an enormous amount of energy weaving around others because a) you are SO excited and b) you feel you MUST stick to your pre-planned average pace. Any energy that you waste in the first mile will come back to bite you in the end. The best way to be sure that doesn’t happen, is to force yourself to run your first mile slower than the rest of your race. You can easily make up that one minute over the next 5.2 or 12.1 or 25.2 miles, but experienced racers know that for every minute you run too fast in the first half of a race, you’ll slow down by two minutes in the last half.

4. Be Realistic With Your Time Goal – Possibly the worst way to pick a race time goal, but also among the most common, is to aim for a “round number” pace or finish time. It goes something like this: “I’m going to finish my half marathon in under 2 hours,” or “I’m going to run my next 10K at a 9:00/mile pace.” Even if you are able to achieve that pace in training runs that closely simulate your race, there are race day factors that will certainly slow you down. A crowded course; the need to use the bathroom due to nerves; stopping or walking through water stations; and the fact that you will always, always run a little bit further than the official distance of the race (read why here) are factors that combine to make your net pace around 10 seconds slower per mile than you’re actually running. This means you’ll either need to adjust your expectations downward, or you’ll need to train for a pace that is around 10 seconds faster per mile in order to hit your nice, round number at the finish line.

5. Train the Way You Will Race – Probably the most important key to long race pacing is simulating race conditions as closely as possible on several training runs leading up to race day. Run the actual course, if possible; slow down and walk every mile if you’ll be taking water at the aid stations; run your first mile a minute slower than your average pace; and finally, try to achieve a negative split in at least one or two training runs.
A negative split is where you run the last half of your training distance slightly faster than the first half. It’s highly desirable to train this way because it forces you to learn how to pace yourself, and it’s highly desirable to race this way because it means you’ll have gas left in the tank at the end. Not only will you be able to push yourself to a fast finish, but the entire race will be so much more enjoyable than if you’d started out too fast only to find yourself walking at the end.

At the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon, my brother and I didn’t quite achieve a negative split, but we came within two minutes of it, and it’s the best I’ve ever felt in any race. If you’d like to see our smiling faces as we cross the finish line, click the link below and fast forward to 25:55. We cross the finish line at 26:00 into the video, with an official chip time of 4:42:24.


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