Running Q&A: Set the Right Race Pace
What is the secret to pacing?
Can my mental and physical states affect my pace?
Is being negative a positive?
Will the right warmup keep me on goal pace?
Can I still salvage a race if I get off pace?
His start hardly foreshadowed history.
On that August 2009 night in Zurich, Switzerland, Dathan Ritzenhein immediately dropped to the back of the pack among the 15 runners in the 5000-meter race at the Weltklasse Golden League meet. Competing against the world's best, including world record holder Kenenisa Bekele, Ritzenhein came through the first lap dead last. Perfect, thought his coach, the legendary Alberto Salazar.
Before the race Salazar had told Ritzenhein, "Get to the back and go as slow as you can without losing contact." Doing just that, Ritzenhein remained calm, his pace steady at 61.8 seconds per lap. Eventually, a number of racers who had pushed the lead began to fall from the front and behind the American. With two laps to go, Ritzenhein had climbed to seventh place—even though his splits barely wavered by more than a second from lap to lap. At that point he finally sped up, pushing his previous pace by two seconds, and ended up in third place. His time of 12:56.27 sliced nearly two seconds off a 13-year-old American record.
But while his surge may have earned him a podium spot and a record, to this day Ritzenhein knows it was his adherence to his (and Salazar's) pacing plan that put him in a position for history.
"I fell into a groove," he says, "and it got easier as the race went on."
Whether you're a world-class runner like Ritzenhein or a weekend warrior who's just out there to finish a fast 10-K, finding the optimal pace can mean the difference between success and suffering. Determining such a pace would seem pretty straightforward. If you want to run a 3:40 marathon, say, it's a simple calculation to figure out that you need to run eight-minute, 23-second miles to meet your goal. But on the track, on the roads, and in real life, unexpected detours and surprises can shred your best pacing plan to pieces.
"We would like to be robots and turn the knob to our goal pace and just go, but we're human," says Greg McMillan, owner of the Flagstaff, Arizona–based McMillan Running Company who has coached elite national runners, including several Olympians. "When we encounter a slight hill or a slight turn, it makes a difference."
To run your best in your next race, consider the following questions, and then put their answers toward a new—and improved—pacing strategy.