Not only is it an art, but pacing yourself by feel is also a science.
Running is the art of pacing. Every runner, no matter how talented or well trained, will perform terribly in any race longer than 400 meters if he or she starts at a full sprint and holds nothing back.
The goal in racing is to cover the distance between the start and finish lines as quickly as possible given one’s talent and conditioning levels. To achieve this goal, a runner must have a solid sense of the fastest pace he or she can sustain through the full race distance and the ability to make appropriate adjustments to pace along the way based on how he or she feels.
Pacing is also critical throughout the training process. A sensible training program for distance runners includes very little all-out sprinting and a careful distribution of efforts across a range of submaximal intensities. A well-designed training plan does half the job. The rest is execution, which means running each segment of each run at the right pace — neither too fast nor too slow.
As important as pacing is to running, it has received little attention from exercise scientists until recently. There was a tendency to treat pace as a phenomenon that was mechanistically determined by a runner’s physiology.
For example, some scientists contended that pacing in marathons was determined by the amount of lactate in the blood. Runners were somehow automatically prevented from running at a pace that would cause their blood lactate to rise above a sustainable level. This idea is absurd, of course, because if it were true no runner could ever run faster than his or her marathon race pace in a race of any distance.
The reason that smart scientists came up with such stupid theories of pacing is that they completely excluded the brain from their models of endurance performance. And they did this because they could not see inside the brain to understand how it worked during exercise. This is a classic problem in science: If it can’t be measured, it’s ignored.
Fortunately, the last 20 or so years have brought a host of innovations that have enabled scientists to observe the inner workings of the brain. In the field of exercise science, these innovations have created an opportunity to develop a new and better model of pacing that includes the brain. In their book, Pacing in Sport and Exercise, Andrew Edwards, an exercise scientist at Australia’s James Cooke University, and Remco Polman, a professor and researcher at Victoria University in Australia, articulate the most complete new “psychophysiological” model of pacing, as they call it.
While the book is clearly intended for a scholarly readership, it has great practical value for runners like you and me. Edwards and Polman argue that pacing is governed primarily by perceived exertion, or how hard an exercise effort feels at any given moment. In experienced athletes, these perceptions are very reliable. For example, if you’re in a 10K race with one mile to go and you feel that you could pick up your pace just a bit without blowing up before you reach the finish line, you’re probably right. Similarly, if you start a planned hard training run in the middle of the week and discover that you feel unexpectedly lousy, as though your body is telling your mind to take it easy today, that message is probably accurate.
Because our “ratings of perceived exertion” (RPE) are so reliable, Edwards and Polman contend, it is possible — and not only possible but advantageous — to use RPE as the primary metric for controlling intensity in the planning and execution of training. They go on to sketch the outlines of a very simple RPE-based training system that anybody can use.
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In this system, a 1-10 scale of perceived exertion is used. A rating of “1” is assigned to the easiest efforts and a rating of “10” represents maximum suffering. To quantify how challenging any single workout is, all you have to do is multiply the average RPE for the whole workout by the duration of the workout in minutes. So a 40-minute run with an average RPE of 4 gets a “session RPE” score of (40 x 4 =) 160.
It is easy to see how useful these scores might be. For example, it won’t take long to figure out the total of session RPE scores your body can handle in a week, or how much you need to cut back your total of session RPE scores to properly regenerate during a recovery week.
Another element of the system that I really like is that there are two options for every workout: a lower-intensity option that is to be chosen if you don’t feel great that day and a high-intensity option that is to be chosen if you feel good. The idea is to plan two options for each day of training so that you have the structure you need to build fitness methodically but also the flexibility you need to stay on track toward your goal despite the bad days and flat patches that always seem to occur when you least expect them.
Perception-based training may seem radical to runners who are used to training by the objective metrics of heart rate or pace. In reality, though, every runner trains by feel to some degree — it’s just a matter of whether you do so consciously or not. I believe that there is great value in using perceived exertion consciously in training.
You can still wear your heart rate monitor and pay attention to your pace, but tuning in to how you feel will help you plan and execute your training in ways that are more responsive to your needs.
To become a better pacer in races and in training is to become a better runner.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.