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Eight tips for perfect race-day pacing

Canadian Running senior editor Kevin Mackinnon offers eight strategies to help you perfect your race-day pacing:

(Ottawa, ON --- May 30, 2010)   MICHEL BUNNY EMON running in the marathon during the Ottawa Race Weekend. Photograph copyright Sean Burges / Mundo Sport Images
Photograph copyright Sean Burges / Mundo Sport Images

Canadian Running senior editor Kevin Mackinnon offers these eight strategies to help you perfect your race-day pacing:

1) Practice makes perfect. “I’m always shocked when I talk to runners who seem to think that their performance on race day will be dramatically different from what they’ve been doing in training,” Mackinnon says. “There should be no surprises at a race – you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re capable of as you toe the line, based on the training you’ve done. If you’ve been able to average 4:30-kilometres for your steady-paced long training runs, then a three-hour marathon is quite realistic. If you’ve been holding 5-minute kilometres for those runs, three hours isn’t realistic at all. Your body simply isn’t trained for the effort required.”

2) Go out easy.” In a big race with a lot of people, this sometimes takes care of itself, thanks to the big crowd that seems to take forever to get across the line. Don’t try to push the pace too early – use the first few crowded kilometres as a warmup, then get into the pace that you’ve trained for. The first few kilometres will likely feel incredibly slow. Don’t worry, though – things will get harder by the end, I promise.”

3) Aim for a negative split. “Whatever the distance you’re running, try to run the second half faster than the first. Aim to get to the halfway point of the race feeling good – not stretched to the limit. At that point evaluate how you’re feeling and either pick up the pace (if feeling good), maintain the same pace (if feeling OK, but not great) or slow down if you’ve let the excitement of the day get to you.”

4) Avoid surges. “Sure, the elite runners at the front of the pack will play games with each other and try to run away from their competition, but if you’re after a good time, you’re best to try and stay on the same pace for the duration of the race. Be careful when you come to areas of the racecourse with a lot of spectators (especially if family and friends are there to cheer you on) because you’ll likely find yourself picking up the pace when you hear all the cheering.”

5) Stay focused. “It’s easy to find your mind wandering during a race, especially if you’ll be running for an hour or longer. I’ve been shocked to find that I slowed down by 15 or 20 seconds over a 1K stretch for no other reason than I lost my focus. Your mind is going to wander, even during a race – just make sure you don’t get distracted for too long and get back to your race focus.”

6) Key words. “To help maintain that focus, I like to use a few key words and images while I’m racing to help me stay on track. “Strong, smooth and quick legs” were my key words, which helped me stay relaxed while focusing quick leg turnover.”

7) Make sure you drink. “This is especially important in a marathon. No matter how well you’ve paced yourself, if you start to suffer the effects of dehydration, you’re going to have a very tough time maintaining your running speed.”

8) Get some help. Many races provide pace bunnies who will run for a specific finish time. Many of the people who take on this task are outstanding at what they do, often coming within seconds of the goal time they set. Or if you have a training partner who is aiming for a similar time, you can work together to both hit your goal time.

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