While we’ve covered much of what there is to know about pacing an endurance race, there are some specifics relative to the run that we’ll cover in this third part.
As a reminder, Part 1 covered general pacing basics for any endurance event, and part 2 covered pacing strategies for triathlon. If you haven’t had a chance to read these, I recommend reviewing those first. Even if you aren’t a triathlete, I recommend reading the run portion of the triathlon article, as there are some strategies there that apply to any run – not just one that comes after the bike.
- Start Smart
From rookie mistakes to veteran misjudgment, most runners have made the error of starting too hard–and paid for it on the back side. And, it’s a mistake we often make more than once. So, put this mantra on repeat: Start. Smart.
In marathon running, for example, research finds that 90% of runners finish the second half substantively slower than the first half. Yet, the research also tells us that an optimal finish will come from even or negative splits. How to fix this? Pacing! And that begins with a smart start.
If you start too hard, this will unnecessarily spike lactate, which is hard to clear under load. This will result in a higher than typical heart rate. The longer the race, the more detrimental a fast start can be. In a 5k or 10k, you may find yourself fading by the second or third mile. And in half and full marathons, you will burn through your carbohydrate stores more quickly, which can lead to an early bonk–even if you kept to your fueling strategy. In ultra-marathons, all of the above will happen, and you’ll reduce yourself to a death march early on in the race.
That being said, a smart start for a 5k will be different than that for a 100 miler. The primary difference is how long you give yourself before you lift to full race effort–and the length of your warm up. In a 5k, you may take anywhere from 2-5 minutes to work into the effort, while in a marathon, you may give yourself the first 5k to settle into a rhythm. For ultra-running, it’s a fully aerobic day.
Speak with your coach on the specifics of your starting strategy. If you are self-coached, rely on your pacing from race-specific training strategies. Be sure to include “dress rehearsal” pacing workouts so you understand what race effort feels like, and how to build into it.
- Banking Time Loses Time
This is a corollary to the previous point. In the general guidelines for pacing (2 weeks ago), I noted that banking time is a losing strategy – and this guideline bears repeating. If you are trying to run the first half of a race faster than what you’ve practiced as race-effort in training, you will spend more time in the second half then you can save in the first half. The research consistently finds that even or negative splits produce the overall fastest times for most distances.
In the 2009 Dubai Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie aimed to break his own world record, which he originally set in Berlin 2008. He started off the first half about 23 seconds faster – and then lost 90 seconds in the final 10k. The moral of this story: start smart. Even the most elite runners can fall prey to running beyond their means. And, while Gebrselassie took a calculated risk in his effort to set the record, that came with a cost.
In 2015, I raced my first 100 miler at the Javelina Jundred. The race featured 6 loops. At the end of the first loop, I was in 265th place, out of 461 starters. By the time I finished the race, I was in 41st place, and the 8th place female overall. In 2017, I repeated this story, finishing the first loop in 199th place, and then crossing the finish line in 39th place overall and 6th place female.
This rise up the ranks didn’t happen because I sped up. This happened because, overall, the pack slowed tremendously over the course of the race, while I remained relatively consistent. Some runners ran their first loop close to 2 hours – and their last loop took them over 7 hours. Given that span, it is fair to surmise they did not start smart, and attempted to bank time while feeling fresh.
To be clear: in a race of 100 miles, there will be a loss of speed in the back half. It is not likely to even or negative split races of this distance. However, the runners who perform the best at the ultra-distance, slow down the least.
- Get a proper warm up
Another important component to the smart start is a proper warm up. The shorter your race, the more important this warm up becomes. In a 5k or 10k, you do not have the ability to use the first 3 miles to warm up. Rather, you need to be on the starting line, ready to go.
This warm up may include an easy run, with some strides, as well as dynamic stretches. As you stand on the starting line, continue with functional movements that will keep you warm and ready to go. For ultra running, you may simply stick with dynamic stretches to get the blood flowing – without adding additional miles.
- Tune in to how you feel
Your watch is great – sure. But, it is only a representation of what is actually happening inside of your body. To understand what the body is capable of, you need to pay attention to how your body feels at race effort. During race-effort training sessions, understand how you feel at the beginning of the workout versus the end. Chances are the same pace will feel harder the longer you stick to it – so keep this in mind!
At the beginning of a race, you should feel good and the effort should feel more than sustainable. As you approach the middle and end of the race, the same effort will feel harder. For those of you running ultramarathons, my advice is that the beginning of the race should not only feel good – it should feel EASY.
In the second half or latter third of the race, expect to feel discomfort (see next point), and understand that this is not a product of going to hard – it is the natural consequence of working at your effort.
- Prepare for discomfort
Running is hard work. It packs a punch on the body and brings with it cardiovascular and muscular discomfort that is different from swimming and cycling. Develop your mental fitness to manage this discomfort.
The shorter the race, the discomfort is more likely to be cardiovascular, and the longer the race, the more the discomfort will be muscular. But, most running races have a mix of both!
For athletes who are new to longer distances, such as the marathon or beyond, the muscular discomfort that begins to settle in somewhere between 16 to 20 miles should not be underestimated. That sh*t is painful and there is no amount of training in the world that will reduce that discomfort – it will only teach you to tolerate it.
While you aren’t working at the top end of your cardiovascular limit, your muscles will be pushed to their limit. Running slower during those later miles won’t prevent this from happening – it only makes it last longer.
For ultrarunners, the discomfort will still start around 16 to 20 miles in. The trick becomes managing these sensations for a longer period of time. The good news is that in most cases, the pain usually doesn’t get any worse, but it can tend to cycle from mild to intense and back to mild. Sometimes, you may feel only a mild ache, but other times, you may wonder if someone is stabbing ice picks into your muscles. Recognize that each moment is temporary.
- Working Hills
How you run hills depends on the distance. But, for most distances and most athletes, I do not recommend trying to run the same pace uphill as you run downhill or on the flats. Rather, work with gravity – not against it.
For the marathon distance or shorter, you can work to maintain the same effort uphill, as assessed by HR and RPE, and then continue with that effort downhill, which will produce faster pacing.
For more experienced racers in 5k or 10k races, you may also take calculated risks to increase the effort uphill to maintain pacing; however, this is a strategy that must be practiced in training. Maintaining pace uphill increases the body’s effort, so that will increase your lactate production and HR. If you practice this strategy in training, your body can improve at clearing that lactate under load. But, this strategy is not recommended for races beyond the 10k.
In ultra-running, the approach to hills is often different than the above. Depending on the duration and steepness of a hill, hiking the hill can be a smarter strategy (and often a faster one) than trying to slog up at a slow jog. When you choose to hike vs. run will be a product of your experience, fitness, and the duration of the race.
Generally, you may opt to hike a hill when:
- It is so steep it will spike your HR. Most ultra distances for most racers are done at a 100% aerobic effort (yes, there are exceptions)
- It is so long you can’t see the top
- You want to balance the muscles used
- Your RPE indicates that you are working at a non-sustainable effort
- Your race strategy includes a run-walk approach. Use the hills for the walks, and run the downhills and flats
- Some Ultra Specifics
While I’ve covered some pacing guidelines for ultras in the points above, there are some unique circumstances to an ultra – especially those that last beyond a day – that require their own consideration.
Given the duration of the ultra event, you will experience cycles of lows and highs. This is perfectly normal. So, tuning in to how you feel is critically important to maximizing the highs and managing the lows. This doesn’t mean you should run like you are shot out of a canon when you feel great. But, if you are hours into your race, and you feel good, then it’s okay to go with that good feeling. Keep a watch on your HR and RPE to make sure you aren’t screwing the pooch – but enjoy the good times.
During the low points, resist fatalistic thinking that you’ll feel this way for the rest of the race. It is more than likely that you won’t. I’ve come back from the dead many many times. In order to do this, you need to understand your systems and what they need. Fuel? Hydration? Clothing change? 10 minutes to chill?
For races of a duration that have you running into the night, expect that there will be slower pacing in those night time miles. This happens for a variety of reasons, including fatigue, decreased sight, and the body’s natural response to the light cycles. So, your effort at night will very likely feel different than that which is applied in the daylight.
Conversely, when the sun comes back up – it’s like MAGIC. Enjoy those opening rays of sunshine and run to how you feel.
Run well downhill. What counts as “flat” is different in ultra-running, especially ultras that are on the trails. Typically, a “flat” ultra may have as much gain as what is categorized as a “hilly” marathon. Learning to be an efficient and strong downhill runner is a key piece of your overall strategy to finishing your ultra strong.
What does down, also goes up. As mentioned previously in the hill section, many ultra-runners may opt to hike hills. Keep this in mind when you review how your particular race course is organized.
You are an N=1
What I’ve written over the past 3 articles are general guidelines, and they may not apply to your unique N=1 situation. Your athletic history, your goals, the nature of the course: all of these things add up to the need for a personalized pacing strategy, which can be built upon the basic outline we’ve drawn in the past 3 weeks.
Talk with your coach, and be sure to practice race pacing in training. If you are self-coached, practice your race pacing in training. Understand not only the numbers, but also what race effort feels like at the start, during the middle, and into the finish.