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Discover How You Can Set Your Course Towards A Fresh PR On Race Day

If you’ve ever participated in a marathon (or even considered taking part in one), you’ve likely come across the common advice: Avoid starting too quickly.

This advice is constantly reiterated for a good reason. It is crucial yet alluring to disregard. Many novice marathoners (and even experienced ones) tend to make the error of trying to accumulate time at the onset of the race, which leads to hitting the wall towards the end.

One nearly foolproof method to prevent this is to run alongside a pacer—an seasoned runner whose responsibility is to guide a group to a specific finish time with a consistent pace or effort.

Well+Good interviewed two pacers who have assisted numerous runners in achieving their marathon and half-marathon objectives. Whether you plan to run with an official pacer at your next race, or simply maintain even splits on your own, continue reading to gain insights on the most effective strategies.

Top Techniques for Running with a Pace Group

Engage with your pacer

Initiating a conversation with a pacer may seem daunting. However, Myles Lock, who has paced four New York City Marathons and numerous half marathons with New York Road Runners, assures that “we don’t bite.” Lock emphasizes the importance for runners to communicate with their pacer—be it for asking last-minute queries or sharing race goals.

If feasible, connect with your pacer before the race’s start-line commotion; they are often available at the race expo. Lock also mentions that inquiring in the race corrals is perfectly acceptable, as that is typically when the pacer outlines the race plan (which typically involves maintaining a consistent effort, where you ease up on uphills and accelerate slightly on downhills).

However, Rashaad Forehand, a pacer for Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego, advises against excessive chatter during the race to conserve energy and prevent dry mouth. (Rest assured, you can ask your pacer questions, as they will be running significantly slower than their personal marathon pace.)

The better your pacer understands your background and goals, the better they can support you, according to Lock. “If we know your name, we can check in on you and you can signal if things are going well or not,” he explains. Establishing a rapport with your pacer also comes with its perks: “If you accomplish a new milestone, I will gladly give you the pacer stick flag as a keepsake,” he adds. “Feel free to request the flag—as long as it’s not strapped to me, it’s all yours.”

Trust in your pacer’s expertise

During most races, pacers must demonstrate consistent ability to complete the race at a substantially faster time than they’re pacing. (For instance, Forehand, a 2:39 marathoner, often paces the 3:30 group.)

Yet, Lock notes that this doesn’t stop runners from inquiring about his marathon personal record mid-race—a query that can be irksome but understandable. “They want assurance that I can fulfill my duties. It helps alleviate their concerns regarding my capabilities,” he remarks. “It’s a comfort factor.”

Runners frequently point out to him any deviations in pace, possibly not grasping the concept of “even effort” rather than exact pace. “Yes, we are aware,” states Lock, who usually monitors with two GPS watches. While he is open to being a sounding board for a runner’s anxieties, Lock wishes more runners would “let us do the thinking for you.” He adds, “We want you to enjoy yourself out there without worrying about the pace. If you run alongside us, you can trust that we’ve got it covered.”

When uncertain, opt for the slower pace group

Running with a pacer won’t be beneficial if the pace they maintain is too fast for you. Approach race day with a reasonable, sensible goal based on your preparation and the course. If your goal falls between two pace groups, start with the slower one.

Lock suggests that by explaining your circumstances to your pacer, they can permit you to move ahead of the group at a specific point in the race if you’re feeling strong. “Communicate effectively with the pacer because they can calculate what pace you need to maintain to achieve your goal should you depart from the group,” he advises. “We are like little calculators in our minds—we aim to eliminate guesswork.”

Avoid using headphones

Capable pacers offer guidance and insights throughout the race, so make an effort to remain attentive. Forehand often alerts runners that he will take the shortest route when nearing a turn (referred to as running the tangent), and Lock guides his group through forthcoming hills, directs them to swiftly grab water at aid stations, and provides form advice upon noticing signs of fatigue or tension.

“You may miss vital information if you are too engrossed in your own world,” highlights Lock, who is additionally a certified running coach. “Moreover, this attentiveness helps you stay alert of your surroundings and fosters effective communication.”

Run in your comfort zone

While it is ideal to be within earshot of the pacer, you need not be right at the core of the pace group. In fact, Forehand suggests that if you are unaccustomed to running amidst large groups, you may prefer being slightly ahead or behind the pace group. Most marathon pacers aim to finish at least 30 seconds ahead of the designated time, so trailing slightly behind should not impede your goal (however, double-check with your pacer before the race just to be sure).

If you find yourself in close proximity to other runners, be mindful to avoid their feet and minimize weaving. “Exerting excess effort to overtake someone is counterproductive,” explains Forehand. “Usually, it is not worth the mental or physical effort—it is best to wait for an opening and progress forward then.”

Becoming Your Own Pacer

Some races, including smaller ones and even prestigious ones like the Boston Marathon, do not utilize pacers. Even in races where pace groups are utilized, you may not find one that aligns with your goal, or you may begin with one but end up running solo eventually (for instance, if you need a restroom break).

If you find yourself on your own, the pacers recommend these strategies for running an evenly paced race.

Rehearse your pace

Any dependable marathon training regimen should include sufficient time spent running at your target marathon pace to acclimate yourself with it. Dedicate some time, especially during race week, to maintain that pace and familiarize yourself with it. “Internalize the sensation of the pace in your mind and in your legs,” advises Lock.

Utilize a timepiece for assistance

If you struggle with maintaining a consistent pace during training, most running watches enable you to set a pace range and will notify you if you deviate from that range. While this can be a beneficial training aid, Forehand cautions against using it during an actual race. (Receiving a digital alert that you’ve slowed down while tackling a hill might lead to frustration.)

Employ a pace band

Pace bands display mile-by-mile elapsed time for a specified pace goal, and are typically available at major race expos. (Certain websites also craft custom pace bands based on course elevation and race strategy.) This can be particularly helpful in races where your GPS watch may not be entirely accurate throughout the course, such as those in metropolitan areas. However, ensure that you do not spend excessive time checking your wrist, advises Lock.

Avoid trying to gain extra time

If you notice yourself moving ahead of your target pace early in the race, exercise restraint, advises Forehand, even if running faster seems effortless. You can push the pace later in the race when you have covered enough ground to prevent sudden fatigue. Keep in mind: For a marathon, view the first 20 miles simply as your initial phase.

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