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The Pros and Cons of Following a Pace Group

  • By Jeff Gaudette
  • Published Sep. 12, 2013
Pace groups aren't always perfect, but they can keep you motivated and push you to a PR. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Is following a pacer a good strategy?

Most pacers will finish very close to their goal time. So, why would it be a bad idea to follow one?

Pacers, like he rest of us, aren’t always perfect. The pacing strategy isn’t always even or optimal. For example, if you were trying to run a half marathon 15 minutes slower than your best time (like many pacers do), you could easily run the first two miles two minutes too fast and still finish. However, run two minutes faster than planned for the first two miles of a PR effort and you’ll fade hard over the final 5K.

Pacers don’t intentionally start out too fast, breeze through water stops, or otherwise not run an optimal race strategy — but it happens. Because the pace is relatively easy for them, however, many pacers don’t realize how even being just slightly off pace can ruin someone else’s chances at a PR finish.

After six years of coaching over 700 marathon runners, here are the two most common pace-group mistakes to be aware of:

1. Starting Out Too Fast

The following is a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. I recently coached a runner we’ll call Barbara who was training for her second half marathon. Barbara’s goal was to finish the race in under 2 hours and 30 minutes, which, given her training paces, was within her capabilities.

With her detailed race plan and specific target paces in hand, Barbara toed the line ready to run the 11:27 per-mile pace average. However, as she glanced across the mass of runners, she noticed a runner holding up a sign saying “2:30 pace group.”

“Great,” she thought. “Now I don’t have to worry about my pace, I can just run with that guy!”

As the race started, Barbara locked onto the pacer and just focused on staying as close to the group as she could. After the first mile, Barbara looked down at her watch and saw the split read 10:50. With the adrenaline from the race, the 10:50 mile didn’t feel that difficult and Barbara figured she was OK. As the second mile came to close, Barbara once again noticed the pace was too fast, this time 11:10. The third mile was again a tad too quick at 11:20.

Soon, Barbara started to fade from the pace group and eventually finished the race in 2:35. Once she reached her family and recapped her race, they informed her that the pacer had come in exactly at 2 hours and 30 minutes. While the pacer was easily able to handle being 70 seconds fast over the first three miles, it destroyed Barbara’s chances of finishing strong.

Unfortunately, this an all-too-common experience for runners who follow a pacer. Because of the adrenaline of the race and having to weave through thick crowds, it’s possible for a pacer to start out far too fast. And, because the pace is quite easy for the pacer, they may not even realize it and it certainly won’t impact their ability to finish strong.

2. Crowding And Pace Fluctuations

Along the same line, some runners find the pace fluctuations that occur during a long marathon race – slowing down/speeding up on hills, at water stops — and the general spurts of adrenaline and fatigue that all runners go through during a race difficult to deal with mentally. Runners who use a pace group need to be cognizant of their own personal strengths and weaknesses during a race and be ready to handle these pace fluctuations without mentally defeating themselves. If the pacer is constantly getting ahead of you on the uphills or pulls away as you have a bad patch (which is likely), it can be the straw that snaps your focus and confidence. This can be a difficult task for a novice runner if you’re not prepared for it.

Likewise, another issue you may confront when running with a pace group is the crowding and general chaos at the start and through the water stations. Generally, the slower your pace group, the more crowded the water stops will be and the more difficult it will be to navigate your way through them. Getting adequate fluids and fuel is critical to race-day success, even early in the race, so missing opportunities because of crowded stations is less than ideal. Many Olympic runners have had their race foiled by missing just one water bottle – and they only need to run for a little over two hours!

RELATED: Practicing Marathon Nutrition And Hydration

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Jeff Gaudette

Jeff Gaudette

Jeff has been running for 13 years, at all levels of the sport. He was a two time Division-I All-American in Cross Country while at Brown University and competed professionally for 4 years after college for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Jeff's writing has been featured in Running Times magazine, Endurance Magazine, as well as numerous local magazine fitness columns.

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