Learn from your mistakes:
It is ok to make mistakes, and to be honest you learn from these much more than hearing from other people. But I have probably made most of the common mistakes in the past, so hopefully hearing about my experiences can help you avoid some of them. This picture is me after Brighton Marathon in 2013. I made numerous mistakes during this race, below I will list them and a few more bits of advice.
Don’t go off too fast:
This is one of the most common mistakes people make, especially when trying for a PB or going for a longer distance. The longer the event the easier it is to go off too fast. It’s like the tortoise and the hare fable, and I think everyone is guilty of doing this, at least once.
It’s simple when you think about it, and if you think about it like this you are less likely to make this mistake. You can’t sprint a marathon. Just like you wouldn’t pace yourself on a hundred metre sprint, you would go all out. So, whatever the distance you are running make sure you set off at the desired pace.
Naturally the further you are running the easier the pace will feel at the beginning, as you will not be pushing yourself as hard as you can. Just remember the distance you have to travel and remember you are slowing yourself down for a reason. If you go too hard at the beginning you will most definitely end up burning out, which can be known as hitting the wall. This is when you deplete your glycogen stores, and staying within your aerobic threshold (by controlling your pace) is one way to avoid this.
It is easy to go off too fast in the excitement of the start line, running alongside those faster than you, or those also going off too fast. You may get away with it for a short distance, but if you go off too fast you will most likely suffer later on. By controlling your pace you will have a much more enjoyable experience.
Know your pace:
It is so important to know your target to set your pace. Some people get very secretive around their target time, and many claim that they don’t have a target, they “just want to finish”. Now regardless of your time, there is nothing wrong with “just finishing”. I would however argue that it is important to have an idea of your target to understand your capabilities.
If you set off with no idea about your pace you are making it much harder for yourself. Don’t be fooled that a relaxed approach, and not caring about the time will make it easier. If you just set off running and don’t have an idea about pace you will not get the most out of the run. You are more likely to push too fast early on and slow down later on, and that is much harder than keeping a steady pace.
Practice desired pace:
It may sound pretty obvious, but once you have an idea of your target time, and know what pace you want to run, then practice. If you know your pace it will be easier to stick to it, and your body will get used to it.
Your body will adapt and get used to a pace, and as you improve you will find it easier. It may be that at this point it’s time to increase your pace, but by feeling confident at a pace for a shorter period it will be easier to keep to it for a longer distance.
Stick to your Pace:
There are a couple of points to make here. First of all the obvious; consistent pacing. I am a fan of an even split, this is always what I try to do when pacing. Keeping a steady pace is the best way, in my opinion, to achieve your very best time. You can deploy a kick at the end when you know there is not much left to do to get a slight negative split.
Some argue that a negative split, running the second half faster than the first, is the best way. Apart from the sprint finish I’m not sold on this. I always believe with this approach you may have sacrificed time at the beginning.
An approach I strongly recommend avoiding is the positive split. This is what many of us have done, and what I have done numerous times. This is where you go harder at the beginning hoping to “Bank” some time for the end. To be honest if you get this perfect and pull it off you may just well get a PB, as you will be pushing to your limit. However more often than not you will end up tiring before the end and watch those extra few minutes at the start that you “banked” disappear.
I am yet to achieve a sub 3 marathon. I’ve not tried for years now, but when I was in the shape to achieve this, my pacing was terrible. I went out too hard, I tired, and then when I knew my target had drifted away I just gave up and slowed. Brighton 2013, Berlin 2014 and Paris 2015 were my serious attempts, and each time I failed to stick to my pace. In London 2013 I got my PB by sticking to the plan. In the other attempts I was on for a considerably better time, I just went too fast, I got cocky, I messed up my pace.
The second point I want to make about sticking to your pace is about your intent when going into the race. Ask yourself, what is your target? I’ve had many people tell me they want X time, so they will start off at X – 15. This is not logical. What is your target, if it is sub4 for example, run at a pace that will get you in at 3:59. Don’t run at a pace that will get you in at 3:45, as if you haven’t trained for this it is very unlikely to happen and will not end well. Trust me, I’ve been there. If however your training goes well and you think you can achieve more, then adjust your target.
Don’t set off faster than you think you can achieve, but if you think you can achieve more then be confident and go and do it. Disguising your target with a slower one is not a great strategy as you will not pace correctly but also you are not being confident. Your mind will give up before your body does, so staying confident that you can achieve your goal will keep your mind going for longer.
Although it is important to practice your target pace, I am a strong believer of shorter faster runs in training. Whatever your pace, train faster, this will make it easier on the day.
When your body adapts to running at a faster pace, you improve, then you can run faster. As you get used to running at a higher intensity, the lower intensity will become relatively easier. When training for a PB I always like to do a couple of speed sessions a week to push improvements and to ensure that my target pace feels more comfortable. A parkrun, or quick short distance max effort run, or intervals are good for speed training. But don’t always train fast, give your body plenty of time to recover with steady runs.
Run with a Pacer
Now of course I was going to mention following a Pacer. I must admit that it may not be for everyone, as some people just want to do their own thing. However the whole idea of following a Pacer is that they will run at a consistent pace, and this will allow you to take your mind off it.
A good Pacer will do more than just keep you at a steady pace. They will keep you motivated throughout your run. Also, those running around you will be aiming for a similar sort of time, so you can surround yourself with people all striving to achieve the same time, and you can support and motivate each other.
It’s been said before, so will I will throw this out there… NO following a Pacer is not cheating. We do not carry you, we do not do any of the running for you. YOU will have to put all the effort in still, and it is you and you alone that will achieve the time.
Whether you use the Pacer as a guide, for a bit of motivation, or to take your mind off things, they are there to help. I try to have a bit of fun as I find making running enjoyable makes it feel easier, subtle distraction techniques I use help people get to the end of the event without as much perceived effort.
Getting your Pace right will have a lot to do with preparation. When you have all the above sorted, you have trained for it and you deploy a good pacing strategy, don’t forget all the other variables. Think about your fuelling strategy; stay hydrated; know the course and know if you want to slow on the big hills or keep going at the same speed.
Sleep well the night before and give yourself the best chance of keeping at your target pace.
Don’t get carried away:
So everything is going well, you have prepared well, you are pacing well… don’t get carried away. This all depends on the distance you are running, but the further you go the easier it will be to get carried away. Remember how far you have to go, and only push harder when you know you can get to the end at that pace. The last thing you want to do is throw it all away when you get towards the end. I’ve been there personally, and I see it so often when pacing. There are those that start with a Pacer, and those that keep ahead of us. Then there are those that go harder, get carried and I pick them up along the way. There is no better feeling than giving someone a tap on the shoulder and giving them the boost they need to keep going. But this can all be avoided if you don’t get too carried away.
How do I know the right pace?
I often get asked how you know what the right pace is. This is a really tricky one, and only you know what pace your are capable of. If you have been training for a target time then you should know the correct pace for you, but this can change during training as you make progress, and you will feel this. You should always feel like you are nearing your limit, unless of course you are training and not pushing yourself to hit the best time you can. I have a pretty simple rule of thumb to judge your pace:
Ask yourself one question, can I hold this pace until the end?
If the answer is yes, you can probably afford to pick up the Pace a little more. If the answer is no then you should ease back to avoid burning out. If the answer is maybe, maybe… well you are probably at the right pace. When pushing yourself to your limit there will always be an element of doubt, but you are more capable than you believe. Your mind will always give up before your body (except for injury) so when your body is screaming at you to stop, believe you can keep going. You need to listen to your body and understand the difference between an injury and a tired body. If your body is telling you that you are tired and need to drop the pace then stay strong and fight the mental battle. If you are mentally strong you can take your body beyond what you think is capable.