How to Pace a Race like a Pro
Are you always coming short on your goal time during a race? Does your GPS show a longer distance than the race was? Do you start too fast and hit the wall early? Does your GPS watch beep before the official mile marker? If you answered yes to any of these questions, read the following tips I learned over the years to pace your race like a pro!
USE A PACE BAND
The first tip that you may already be using is to use a pace band. The great news is that you have plenty of options. Some allow you to put your time down to the seconds, some are rubberized, some are based on the race course, you can even find some that apply like a temporary tattoo.
Personally, I like the Marathon Guide version for marathons. The only downside is that you can only enter hours and minutes. If I’m running up to a half marathon, I prefer to use the Runner’s World version although it takes practice to print them.
In addition, prevent the ink from smudging by applying a piece of clear packing tape on top and at the bottom and then cutting the edges. I use a small piece of tape to close it around my wrist. Be sure it’s not too tight so you can rotate it during the race, especially during a marathon. For half marathons, the band is a lot smaller and I usually try to tape it to the bottom part of my watch band, as shown in the pictures below.
Don’t wrap the pace band too tight.
You can also tape the band on your watch.
DON’T TRUST YOUR GPS WATCH
Do you ever get to the end of the race and realize that it was a lot longer than advertised? Maybe you recorded 13.3 miles for a half marathon or 26.5 miles for a marathon. Courses are always measured along the shortest possible route, aka by cutting corners and running along the tangents. During the race, you may not be able to cut the course like the race director, hence the extra mileage. In addition, your GPS watch is inaccurate to a certain extent, and tree coverage or buildings may interfere with the GPS signal which tends to add mileage especially on the longer distances.
PICK THE CORRECT PACE
Adding distance to your race not only means you might get discouraged before the finish line, it also means your timing will be off. Let’s assume you had planned on running a 3:30 marathon. Over 26.2 miles, that’s a pace of 8:01/mi (4:59/km). However, due to the inaccuracies discussed earlier, you might record 26.5 miles which, if ran at 8:01/mi pace, will get you to the finish line in 3:32:27! In order to finish 26.5 miles in 3:30, you will need to maintain 7:55/mi (4:55/km) for the entire race. Quite the difference!
As a result, if you want to pace a race like a pro, when planning your race pace, be sure to add a little distance. Personally, I use a free app on my iPhone/iPad called Running Pace. You can simply enter the distance and either a pace or a time and it will calculate the other values. You can set it up for both miles and kilometers and even get your mile splits. From experience, my marathons often come to about 26.5 miles and my half marathons to about 13.2 miles. For example, my last race in San Diego added up to 13.18 miles.
TURN OFF AUTO-LAP
If you turn on auto-lap on your GPS watch, you may notice that it never syncs with the official mile markers during the race. One way to deal with this is to turn off auto-lap and simply mark them manually. This creates two different types of paces: the “indicated” pace which is what your watch records and displays, and the “true” pace which is how long it actually took to travel the official mile (which may be longer than a mile).
The “indicated” pace is what your GPS watch shows.
The “true” pace is calculated based on how long the official mile was.
Once I cross a mile marker, I do several things:
1. Press the LAP button
This one is simple, simply press the button when you cross the official mile marker line.
2. Check the time and pace for the lap
Because the mile is likely going to be long, the lap time (true pace) and pace (indicated pace) may be a few seconds off. For example, in the graph below, during mile 9 the lap time (true pace) was 6:02 but the distance being 1.02 mi, the (indicated) pace was 5:56. The only reason I knew my true pace is because I manually recorded the lap. My goal was to run 6:05/mi true pace. If I had relied solely on my indicated pace and ran 6:05/mi, my true pace would have likely been closer to 6:10-6:15/mi, putting me behind at a rate of 5-10 seconds per mile!! This is not how to pace a race like a pro.
Prior to starting the race, I knew my goal was 1:19:45 which, if using 13.1 miles, converts to 6:05/mi pace. However, I had estimated the race to be 13.2 miles, and knew I needed to maintain 6:03 indicated pace to make it on time! After a few miles, I realized that my calculations were correct and that if I used an indicated pace (on my watch) of 6:02 or 6:03, it was getting approximately 6:05/mi true pace, aka the time between two official mile markers.
3. Compare cumulative time to your wrist band
The last thing to do is compare the cumulative time to the wrist band, which tells me exactly how many seconds I am ahead or behind my goal. For example, looking at the graph below, you notice that mile 3 was slower than 6:05/mi true pace. This was due primarily to the terrain but also to the length of mile 3 (1.01 mile instead of 1.00). As such, my cumulative time when I crossed mile 3 was 18:21. Based on my wrist band, my goal was 18:15, which indicated that I was 6 seconds behind my goal. Should you make up 6 seconds in the next mile? Absolutely NOT! I had 10 more miles to make up 6 seconds, which is a lot easier to manage (this is even more true during a marathon).
HOW TO SETUP YOUR GPS WATCH
When racing, I keep the data on my GPS watch to a minimum. Information overload can confuse you so be sure to setup your watch correctly. Also be sure to practice before race day! If you are lucky to own one of the newer watches that allows you to create separate activities, I recommend you create a “racing” activity (called App with Garmin).
The first screen shows 3 pieces of information: LAP PACE, LAP DISTANCE, and INSTANT PACE. LAP PACE allows me to ensure that my average pace since I pushed the LAP button is within my goal. It is easy to go fast during the first few miles and pay the price for it at the end. This is also why I display INSTANT PACE. The DISTANCE field allows me to keep an eye on how much distance is left until the next mile marker. It also helps me keep track of how long each official mile is.
The second screen shows the TIMER and the LAST LAP PACE. The TIMER shows me the cumulative time and helps me compare it to my pace band. I use the LAST LAP PACE to determine what my indicated pace was during the last lap, and give me an idea of how I need to adjust my pace.
The third and last screen shows the TOTAL DISTANCE, TIMER, and AVERAGE PACE. This is a good screen in case I forget which mile I’m on (happens during marathons) and helps me see how my overall pace is shaping up.
My watch also allows me to customize the fields that appear when I press the LAP button. I like to display the LAP TIME (my true pace) and the TOTAL TIME so I can easily compare it to my pace band (this only displays for approx. 5 sec).
PACE YOURSELF! NO… SERIOUSLY
One of the most common error for half and full marathon runners, especially newbies, is to start the race too fast. This is easy to do for several reasons: you’ve trained hard, everyone around you is going fast too (they may have a different goal), you are well rested, you have excess adrenaline, etc.
Don’t fall for it! Run your own race. If someone passes you, let them go. Use your INSTANT PACE and LAP PACE to keep an eye on your progress and adjust as necessary. Your goal should be to run faster at the end of the race than at the beginning. Or at least run even splits all along!
Be mindful of the terrain too. Study the course before hand. There may be hills at the end so save some gas. There may also be downhills early on. Don’t go too fast as they will destroy your quads. Simply maintain your pace, lean backwards, and use a higher cadence to reduce the impact and don’t try to make up time.
TRAIN AT HIGH-ALTITUDE
Training at high-altitude will give you an edge for your next race! Imagine running at your race pace and feeling like you are running your slow long run. I am lucky enough to train above 5,000 feet year long and races at sea level make you appreciate the extra oxygen! You too can join us for a few days or weeks and train at high-altitude with our summer camps. We explain the benefits of high-altitude training on our page, go check it out.
To pace a race like a pro you will need practice, planning and a lot of self-control. Always determine your goal pace based on a distance longer than advertised so you can determine your indicated pace versus your true pace. Don’t trust your GPS watch too much, make sure you set it up with as few fields as possible, and turn off the auto lap function. Finally, use a race band or race tattoo and keep monitoring it throughout the race while making small adjustments if you are falling behind. Don’t hesitate to share your own tips in the comment section too!
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