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Pacing – The Biggest Running Lesson I’ve Learned

Another very useful guide by our reader Matt. If you would like to share your tips, guides or stories, email Ben at [email protected]

I entered my first race, the Great North 10K, in 2011 and finished in 1:05:10. Three years and one marathon later, at the British 10K on 13th July 2014, I finally broke the hour mark setting a 10K PB of 59:20. Why did it take me 3 years to knock 5 minutes off my 10K time? Pacing! And in my case, getting it very wrong!

Start slow and increase gradually

I have to be honest, my first few runs I didn’t really think about pacing at all and just concentrated on trying to reach the finish as quickly as possible which, ironically, actually slowed me down. It wasn’t until I started training for the 2014 Edinburgh Marathon that I realized the importance of pacing and getting it right.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out something before you realize there is a problem. A friend of mind, who was training for the London Marathon at the same time I was training for Edinburgh, noticed that my split times started quickly but would rapidly slow and plateau after not many miles.

Much like how a car’s petrol gauge heads towards empty quicker the harder you stamp on the accelerator, I was emptying my gas tank at the start of my runs and running on fumes by halfway. Not conducive to better times or enjoyable runs.

Since that was pointed out to me and I’ve started concentrating more on my pacing I’ve noticed a big difference. I now deliberately start off very slowly, not much above walking pace. How long I remain at this pace depends on the distance I’m running.

In my early runs I was almost afraid to start slowly as I associated a slow start with a slow finish. For anyone new to running I would advise; be open to starting slow, try it on a few runs. What I’ve found, by starting slow, once my muscles warm up and my brain recognizes I’m running I naturally fall in to my comfortable pace without having to consciously think about picking up the pace.

Rather than emptying your gas tank early on I gradually increase the pace, going up through the gears if you like. Comfortable, steady miles, I have found, have really been the key to quicker times for me and improved my running technique.

Comfortable miles lead to more miles

By not focusing on pace and just letting it come naturally while out running, over a few runs you should discover what your natural pace is. Importantly, this is your pace. I have friends who are both quicker and slower than me. Don’t be worried if you are not as quick as other people, everyone is different. Go with what feels good for you.

Once you find your comfortable pace you can use that as a benchmark. Much like weight lifting and upping the weight when reps become easier, if for example you find 10 min miles comfortable, to up the pace, aim for 9:45 miles. It’s achieveably which is a big mental bonus. From there hopefully not too much effort is needed to get down to 9:30. Then you find you’ve reduced your 10K time by over 3 mins, an improvement not to be sniffed at.

At this point, consolidate.

You are used to your 10 min mile pace so you should feel it when you knowingly up the pace. Over the practice runs you’ve hopefully enjoyed your time on the pavements and found a pace whereby you build up a sweat but aren’t entirely out of breath when you finish. By taking the time to develop a pace you are comfortable with and not pushing for times you are laying the foundations for enjoyable runs and quicker times, when you want quicker times.

Once you have found the pace that works for you, consolidate. Try doing runs of varying lengths aiming to find your pace and stick at it. Also try interval runs or threshold runs where you are actively trying to hit a quicker pace.

If you enjoy your runs you are more likely to keep running.

Once you have banked a number of miles at a pace you find comfortable you will hopefully have built up your stamina and leg strength and are in a position to experiment. Again, start off slow. If you want to run a faster half marathon for example start off with 10K’s and 10miler’s. Once your legs have adjusted to the quicker pace then go for the half marathon.

Again, by banking miles at a quicker pace but over a shorter distance than your goal you have built up leg strength, stamina and improved your cardio and by hitting milestones – quicker 10K, quicker 10mile – subconsciously you are motivating yourself as you run and are making it easier for yourself to hit your goal of a quicker half marathon.

Don’t think, feel

To summarise, pace can make or break a run. Get it right and you are laughing get it wrong and you will feel it the day after. Don’t worry about your pace, let the body run at the pace it wants to run at and you will soon find what feels good for you.

Start slow. If on a training run, build up to the pace you’re happy with and stay there. In a race, start off at your comfortable pace, don’t tire out your legs, then push the pace in the later stages of the race. Keep pacing in the back of your mind but don’t stress about it. Comfortable, steady miles really are the key to enjoyable, better runs and enable you to increase or decrease your pace as you wish.


You can follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWalby1

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