Thoughts on Pacing

Wednesday 6th June 2012

We did mile reps yesterday; 5 reps with a lap jog in between. I was really happy with how the session went, both in terms of how I managed to control the pace and the times I was clocking. I averaged 5:02 with the last couple under 5. A satisfying session all round, and an indicator that I’m starting to get in good shape after my post-marathon down time. I was helped greatly by Rob, whom I was training with on this occasion, and who paced me to at least 800 metres on most of them. The effect of this was that the first two laps were pretty much ‘free’ – I still had to do the work but it helped having someone set the pace. The thought of doing the session on my own was a daunting one so I was relieved when Rob’s name popped up on my phone yesterday morning asking what the session was. There are definite training benefits to training on your own, but on a cold and windy day I didn’t want to know about them. I wanted someone to follow.

This got me thinking about a few weeks ago when I went down to my local parkrun on Saturday morning. I was tired and had no intention of racing the 5k distance but wanted to get my legs moving, so I ran the first lap of approximately one mile with my friend Martin, who was leading the race. I then stopped and jogged until another friend, Dan caught up with me and we ran the rest of the 5k together as a tempo run. It never occured to us that we were doing anything wrong or unethical until the runner just behind us said “pacing is cheating,” referring of course to me having paced Martin around the first mile. Dan and I dismissed him as politely (I think) as we could and carried on. The debate continued after the run, and the other runner, who strangely didn’t seem to have any moral objection to tucking in behind us and running at our pace, wouldn’t let it drop. His argument was that it is a race rather than a time trial and that no one else gets someone to set the tempo for them. He was right, to an extent, but Martin couldn’t help it that no one turned up who was good enough to challenge him.  Would he have objected so much, had someone hammered the first mile and then pulled up injured, in the process setting a quick pace for others to follow? I’ve written about this before, when debate raged about the validity of Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record, set with the assistance of male pacemakers. It wasn’t her fault that none of her competitors were good enough to challenge her on the day, so why deny her the chance to run a faster time?

I heard an interesting statistic recently; that 4 of the 5 men ranked below Hicham El Guerrouj in the all-time list for 1500m ran their personal bests whilst coming second to the great Moroccan. Everyone, it seems, benefits from a bit of pacing. Even El Guerrouj didn’t run those fast races as solo efforts; he had two or three guys capable of taking him to 1200 at world record pace. He then just had to hang on. Say what you like about the prevalence of EPO in the nineties and the fact that all the best times seem to come from the turn of the century, but the depth in middle distance running at that time was remarkable. Several guys were pushing each other and getting great times as a result. It is no co-incidence, then, that in this era where anything under 3:30 is considered outstanding, that the quality of pacemaking seems to have dropped too. The splits were all over the place at the Pre mile at the weekend, and the pacemakers rarely get it right for races over 800 metres. Anyone capable of doing it is in the race themself.

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to all of this. I like the purity of championship races, where the pace is dictated by the athletes who are racing, and where the event is a genuine race and not a time trial. I also love watching people run super-fast times. In just the same way I love trying to run as fast as I can, but sometimes there’s nothing better than ditching the watch and getting in a good old-fashioned race.

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