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Blog / 2014 / December / The Art Of Pacing
December 14, 2014

The Art Of Pacing

by Patrick Davitt

The desire for individuals to achieve optimal physical performance continues to be sought after, as advances are made in both technological and physiological understanding. This desire is no greater than in the capabilities of human beings to cover great distances (e.g., a marathon) in as little time as possible, in as efficient a manner as possible. Pacing strategy, or the distribution of work over an event, is an integral component to successful performance during endurance exercise. This translates into running - say a 6 min/mile pace in the first few miles of the race and being able to still hold that 6min/mile pace for the last few miles and all of those in between. The average individual will see a small to large drop in performance over the length of the race and often finish the last few miles at a significantly slower pace. The concept of maintaining an even "race pace" is to achieve a great thing that few seem to do. The best of the best will typically run the second half of a race almost even, if not very slightly faster than they did the first. This can be an extremely difficult thing to do even for highly trained individual, especially if that pace is superior.

The Difference Between Monitoring Performance and Training For Improved Performance

There are several options for monitoring pace and heart rate (HR), such as cell phones (with corresponding applications) and HR monitors (wrist worn with chest strap transducer). The basic devices or phone applications will be very good at providing you with either a continual HR reading and/or continual speed (i.e., pace), and will likely give you a report of your average and max pace and HR. Not to take away from these devices or their limited recording, as they have great merit and applicability for the user, but what this post is suggesting gets at more than just going out for a jog or ride and viewing your HR. It refers to the concept of training and training for improved performance, along with the improvements in health.

General Pacing Concepts: Speed and Heart Rate

The two general concepts behind pacing are the speed pacing and HR pacing. I will not be diving into the complexities of how metabolic shifts cause HR to change or "drift" over longer periods of time, even when your speed and pace stay the same. This is more of an introduction into using HR to "pace yourself" during an endurance activity. Speed pacing is simply that: moving at a consistent, specific speed (e.g., 7mph, 6min/mile). This is a key determinant in actual race performance, as it does not merely matter what pace you can achieve, but how well you can maintain that pace for the duration of the race. Think of starting off at a fast pace, during your next workout, and not slowing at all throughout the entire workout. Research tends to show that even pacing is highly advantageous in the competitive endurance field (Abbiss, 2008; Johnson, 2014). However, this number is absolute, meaning it does not differentiate between individuals. Running a 5min/mile pace or cycling at 24 mph is the same for you, me or anyone else.

HR pacing takes into account a multitude of factors (e.g., intensity, hydration, environmental) to give you individualized HR readings. The premise of using HR for pacing is based on the assumption that HR, intensity (i.e., speed), and oxygen consumption all increase in a linear fashion. You can think of HR pacing similar to HR zoning (e.g., achieve a HR between 55-70% for fat burning zone), but with a little more emphasis on exertion/effort and a tighter consistency (+/- 5 bpm HR). The beauty of pacing is that you have instant feedback on your every movement and performance. Combine the ability to view both HR and current pace and now you have something specific to you: your performance and your body's effort required to produce that performance. This combination of data can be a valuable tool in your training: 

  • It gives you insight into your body's adaptations and improvements over time (pre and post-assessment).
  • It can give you insight into your current fatigue state (hydration, sleep, nutrition, stress/recovery, etc.).
  • It allows you to view your body's effort under a specific workload (i.e., pace) and compare this to your perception of exertion,"RPE" (This is an extremely powerful tool when it comes to "performing" on race day).
  • Some advanced watches will analyze this data for you and provide immediate post-workout feedback on your estimated fitness level (e.g., VO2max), based on your age/weight related HR at a given pace. As you improve fitness, your physiology becomes more efficient and your HR will be lower at the same absolute workload (i.e., pace).
  • Some of those advanced watches will also factor in the intensity, duration and distance of the workout and provide a recommendation on how long your recovery should be!

Whether you are an advanced athlete or someone simply looking to run your first 5k, the art of pacing will generally prove to be advantageous. The use of HR monitors, especially ones that also provide real time pace (via GPS or some accelerometer based calculation) will allow an Individual to witness and document physiological changes and adaptations their own body is going through. Chances are the more advanced or elite endurance athlete will already be aware of or actively using such devices and pacing strategies, with or without a coach's guidance. No one can replace what a coach or trainer will do for you or can do for you, but anything that provides you with an opportunity to document your every step, let alone your every heartbeat will ultimately lead you in a positive direction. The great benefit will be your awareness of how hard your body is working to achieve a given pace, and how remarkable it is to improve and see your HR lower when moving at that same pace. No matter what your fitness goals are remember to pace yourself, because progress takes time! 

Patrick earned his doctorate in Nutritional Physiology and Biochemistry from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, where he specialized in Exercise Physiology and had worked as the Sports Nutritionist for the Rutgers University Football Team for 4 years. He completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the UConn Kinesiology department where he studied carbohydrate and fat manipulation on endurance performance. As an Assistant Professor at Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, NY, Dr. Patrick Davitt currently teaches exercise science to undergraduate students, while carrying out research on various topics relating to dietary and activity manipulation towards optimizing lipid metabolism, energy expenditure, performance and health in obese individuals, elite athletes and both first responders and the military. He has worked with a variety of individuals including obese, elderly, both collegiate and professional athletes, and the military.

Patrick is currently a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA. He currently serves on the Greater New York Regional Chapter of ACSM student committee, research committee and nominations committee and has been a presenter at the Annual ACSM-Greater New York Regional Chapter Conference. When Patrick is not teaching or doing research he is spending time with his family, doing almost anything outdoors (camping, trout fishing, running, photography, motorcycle riding) or reading.

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