Do you start your races like a rocket ship to the moon and then find yourself falling out of the sky halfway there? Are you constantly checking your watch to figure out if you’re going too fast, too slow, wildly off pace, or nailing the goal?
There’s a simple fix: listen to your body. Depending upon the race conditions and planned distance, pace and effort will change, but the ideal for each run is to start with the first mile being the slowest as your body warms up and adapts to the movement. This is why a longer warm-up is recommended for shorter races.
Recent studies have shown that a “negative split” (speeding up during the second part of the race) is less likely to produce a personal record than running at a consistent pace throughout the race. In order to do that, one must spend a little more time practicing tuning in to the body during training and learning how different paces feel.
First, this helps with goal setting, and second, it leads you away from the watch. Additionally, once you begin running by feel, it becomes easier to back off on hard days and push on during easy days because you can trust your body. There are six great ways to learn to pace yourself while running.
Turn off the music and head out solo at least once a week. Without distractions, you’re forced to pay attention to how the run feels. Yes, this may actually remind you that running is hard, but it’s worth it.
Begin rating each run with your perceived exertion on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being a full-out sprint. Track your Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) along with the final pace on your watch to begin making that correlation while you run.
A more relaxed approach — and my preferred method — is to be aware of your breathing, your legs, and the overall feeling of the run. Note any changes in those things and adjust your pace accordingly; when your goal is to add mileage, it will help you slow down if you’ve started too quickly.
Heart Rate Training
New runners often note that every run feels hard, so perceived exertion may be difficult to subjectively judge. Focusing on heart rate instead can help provide a solid number to track that is not pace. (Remember, the goal is to tap in to your body, not your stopwatch.)
This isn’t the same as training in heart rate zones or even low-heart-rate training. It’s simply a tool for monitoring to help you become more in touch with how different paces feel.
It might not be your cup of tea, but treadmill runs help teach you what maintaining a specific pace feels like. By setting the pace and then following it for a duration, you’ll quickly notice if you’ve been striving for a pace that’s too fast, too slow, or that a consistent feels different from your normal vacillating pace outside. To keep the boredom at bay, try playing with the incline, and after each mile, do a full-body scan to begin creating muscle memory around the pace.
The ideal is to reach 180 footfalls per minute for optimal foot turnover (best pace, least time on the ground for injury). As you learn this system, you’ll begin to run more efficiently, and, again, it takes the focus away from pace, giving you another measurement for gauging your run. iFit has a great metronome app you can download to use on your phone.
Set Your Mind, Not Your Watch
On any given day, a run can feel harder or easier based on training, nutrition, weather, and life. By looking solely at the watch, a run could quickly be deemed good or bad, but learning to run by feel means you have the ability to adjust training.
Studies have shown that one’s perceived idea of how a run will feel often impacts the entire body. Spend a few minutes before each run setting your mind for the intensity of a speed workout or the duration of a long run. Remind yourself that you can lean in to discomfort to help your body change and that you can do anything for an hour.
Setting expectations about the run, and tying those in to the feel of each pace, ensures that, on race day, you’re able to keep pushing when others might pull back because you know where the discomfort lies and that you can pass it.
Race Pace Workouts
One of the lessons I took away from Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald was to incorporate far more race pace miles in my training. Looking back at my marathon training plans, I noticed that most runs were faster (tempo) or much slower (the long, easy runs) than my goal pace. How on Earth are we supposed to maintain a pace that we haven’t practiced?
During the mid to later portion of a training cycle, begin adding a few race pace miles to workouts during the week, and then start adding more to every other weekly long run.
Not every one of these methods is going to work for every runner, so if you don’t get results from one, try another. The most important thing is to listen to your body and build the muscle memory of what your target pace feels like. Do that, and when race day comes on October 22nd, you’ll be in a great position to achieve your goal.