Running Smart: Brain Hacking for Better Pacing
One of the greatest improvements a runner can make that will lead to faster finishing times, more comfortable training, and a more beneficial workout, is to master the art of pacing. Indeed, a common mistake among beginning and veteran runners alike is to run too fast in the first mile or kilometer of a race, only to be slowed down to a near walk towards the finish. When studying the way elite runners race, a quick look at split times shows that nearly every world record has been run with even or negative pacing. How can a runner achieve perfect pacing? The trick begins with the brain, so hacking starts with external factors.
Why you need to master the art of pacing
Every runner, no matter how well-trained or talented, will perform terribly in any race longer than 400 meters if he or she holds nothing back and starts at a full sprint.
The goal in any race is to get to the finish line as quickly as possible given one’s conditioning levels and talent. To achieve this scary goal, a runner must have a great sense of the fastest pace one can sustain through the entire race distance. One must also have the capacity to make proper adjustments to pace along the course based on how he or she feels.
Invest in a Metronome
There is a reason that many marathoners are called “metronomes” by coaches, fans, and other athletes. The ability to steadily maintain an even pace is a great quality to have, especially over long distances. In fact, the brain naturally craves rhythm, as evidenced by our steady heart and respiratory rates. For those of us who are rhythmically challenged, a metronome is a useful tool.
A metronome is a device that helps a runner maintain a specific cadence by synching a sound, such as a “tick tock,” like a clock, or a beep, with the cadence of the right foot hitting the ground. By maintaining an even rhythm, a runner can learn how to adjust stride length based on pace, and ultimately keep a controlled effort over the duration of a run. In the beginning, running on flat surfaces is recommended until the metronome becomes second nature.
Look For an App That Syncs Running and Pace
For the runner who finds the metronome to be too boring or the calibration too complicated, a simpler answer may be to download an app specifically made to synchronize a goal pace with music that has the same beats per minute. If you have ever been out on a run, crushing the workout as heavy metal blares through your headphones, only to be slowed down as soon as a love ballad plays, then you undoubtedly understand the concept behind this brain hack.
There are a number of apps available, as well as a variety of ways to use them. For the person who is beginning to learn about pacing, he or she may wish to set the app to a specific cadence or pace. As long as the runner runs to the beat of the song playing, his or her cadence or pace will be maintained. For the runner who is testing his or her ability to remain on pace, apps can be downloaded that will match the runner’s current pace or cadence to the beat of the song. In this way, the runner can easily track whether he or she is slowing down or speeding up, and make adjustments along the way. If the metronome is old school, a “cruise control” app is certainly new school.
Ditch the GPS
Many runners mistakenly believe that a GPS-enabled watch can help them maintain even pacing throughout a run, which simply is not the case. When using the “pace” function on a GPS, slight variations or signal interference, such as from buildings, can distort the readings on the watch, causing a runner to continually slow down and speed up. This will ultimately have the opposite effect on the runner’s pace.
Instead, ditch the GPS and dig out your old fashioned Timex. Find a short, flat route of a known distance (i.e. a 400 m track or a mile-long loop around the neighborhood) and time yourself while running multiple loops. Sometimes, the best brain hack of all is to trust your running instincts.
A new runner should stick to a shorter loop in order to benefit from the continual feedback, but a veteran runner should practice with longer loops to reinforce the skills he or she likely already has. After running the loop once or twice, the brain and body naturally fall into a rhythm to maintain even pacing throughout the run. Once pacing becomes second nature (i.e. the runner can repeatedly run each lap within 2 – 10 seconds of goal time), only then should he or she revert to the GPS for real time feedback and data storage.
Hit the Treadmill
When first learning how to pace, taking the guesswork out of the task and allowing yourself to focus simply on good form and good breathing can be incredibly beneficial. From a neuromuscular standpoint, practicing running an even pace on a treadmill can develop good “muscle memory” that carries over to the roads or trails. When faced with the option of staying on target or face planting on the treadmill, the body and brain work together to safely complete the task while reaping important benefits.
Find a Pace Group
When training for a large race, oftentimes a training group is made available for weekend long runs where the participants aim to run a steady and consistent pace the entire time, usually led by a reputable pace leader. Numerous studies have found that running in a pack exerts less mental and physical energy. Without having to focus on internal struggles, such as worrying about slowing down or speeding up, the brain is better able to focus on what even pacing feels like. If pace groups are not available in your area, consider asking a local running store if anyone would be available to lead a pace run.
Use a Mantra
Much in the same way a metronome or song can help a runner maintain even pacing, a simple mantra can keep your legs moving at a steady cadence. Example mantras include “legs and lungs,” or “slow and steady.” Once you settle into the pace you would like to maintain, repeat the mantra in your head to the beat of your steps. Again, your body will respond to the natural rhythm of the phrase, and should you begin to speed up or slow down too much, simply repeating the phrase a few times will help your body get back on track.
How fast are you running? Do you know how to pace yourself? Ask yourself midrun—no peeking at your GPS watch or phones—and chances are, you will get it wrong. Follow the steps from above and let us know how you tackle pacing.