How To Nail Your Pacing While Running

Practice makes perfect, and perfect pacing means great race results.

Don’t overlook pacing. Learning what pace to shoot for, what that pace feels like, and how to maintain it during a race are essential skills for runners looking to hit (or beat) specific race times. No matter what your running experience level is, developing a pacing strategy will help you perform better on race day, says Cory Smith, founder and head coach of Run Your Personal Best, an online running coaching company. 

“Learning how to pace can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful race,” he says.

To determine proper pacing, you’ll need to keep track of your split times—the time it takes you to complete specific segments of a race (mile splits, for example). There are three strategies when it comes to splits. Positive splitting means starting out fast and running slower toward the end of the race. Even splitting means running the same pace through the entire race. Negative splitting means starting out slow and then increasing your speed as you get closer to the finish. 

Positive splitting can exhaust you before you reach the finish line (even splitting can do it, too). For that reason, this strategy is sometimes called “fly and die.” For most runners, Smith recommends aiming for negative splits. This allows your body to warm up before gradually transitioning to a faster pace. 

“Negative splitting is physiologically better for your body,” he says. 

In Smith’s view, negative splitting is all about managing energy. He teaches all of his runners how to negative split during training runs so they can do it in races, when it counts. Here’s how you can do it, too.

What Pace Should You Shoot For?

First things first: How do you know what pace per mile you should be aiming for? Pace charts, like the Road Runners Club of America pace chart developed by 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, are one key resource. They’re available online, and they show goal race times and calculate pace per mile based on your performance in past races. Pace charts factor in distance—the longer the route, the harder it is to maintain a certain pace—and pad the suggested times accordingly. 

For example, if you’ve run a 5K in 25 minutes, an online pace chart might show that you can run a 10K in a time of 51 minutes, 58 seconds. That same pace chart will show that you ran an average of 8:03 minutes per mile to run your 5K time, and that you should aim to run an average of 8:23 per mile for your target 10K time.

To run a negative split for the 51:58 10K above, Smith would advise starting off between an 8:30 and 8:25 pace for the first 2 miles (think of these as your warmup miles), easing into an 8:25 to 8:20 pace for the next 2 miles, then settling into an 8:20 pace or faster for the rest of the race.

How Do You Learn Your Paces?

Smith says it’s perfectly OK for beginners, especially, to rely on a GPS watch to see their pace at a glance. The watch will tell you what pace you’re holding, and at the end of each mile, it’ll tell you what pace per mile you clocked for that segment.

Just keep in mind that GPS watches aren’t always accurate: They can lose signal reception, especially when surrounded by tall buildings or steep terrain, and that will affect their pace calculations. For that reason, it’s a good idea for every runner to learn what their intended pace feels like. 

To do that, Smith has his runners head to the track, to flat routes on the road, or to running paths with marked or well-known mile markers. Once there, they’ll practice running at their intended pace and pay attention to how it feels. 

You can do the same: Without looking at your watch, run a mile at what you think is your intended race pace. When the mile is up, check your watch to see your actual pace and adjust your speed as necessary to get on-pace. With time, you’ll get a feel for the correct pacing.

“As with any skill, the best way to learn that pace is through repetition and practice,” says Smith. “You’ll learn to recalibrate. The ultimate goal is to be able to guess your pace within five to 10 seconds every time.”

How Often Should You Run Your Race Pace?

Most coaches, including Smith, advise those training for races to do two hard workouts each week: one that’s speed-oriented and one that’s distance-oriented. Those training for marathons generally try to run their goal race pace for somewhere between 6 and 15 miles of their long run, depending on their experience level and where they are in their training cycle. 

Those aiming to nail a specific 5K or 10K race time can run their goal pace during their speed-oriented training. Smith recommends doing a workout of repeats (anywhere from a quarter-mile to a mile each) with 2 to 5 minutes of total recovery: An example of a 5K workout would be one set of 8 to 12 quarter-mile repeats at your goal pace with 90 to 120 seconds of jogging recovery between sets. 

What About the “Fly and Die” Strategy?

Despite the known benefits of negative splitting, some runners will still start out fast and try to hang on until the finish. Smith says there are some situations where this strategy makes sense, but the results can be unpredictable. The benefits of positive splitting are psychological. Having some fast miles in the bank and being able to fade a little to still achieve your race goal is easier, mentally speaking, than starting slow and knowing you have to pick up the pace. 

The downside to this pacing strategy is that it’s easy to burn through too much energy early and hit a wall. Then it’ll be hard (or impossible) to sustain a pace anywhere near what’s needed to achieve your goal. If done correctly, negative splitting ensures you have enough energy at the end of the race to finish strong.

It may take a while to become a pro at negative splitting, but consistent training—to build endurance and to learn what your race pace feels like—will get you there.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.