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Check yourself before you wreck yourself - Pacing

by Robert Britton
Friday 31st January 2014
Tags  Robert Britton   |   inov-8   |   Team Centurion   |   Stuart Mills   |   Chrissie Wellington   |   Rory Bosio
 
 

Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion, takes a look at different approaches to pacing your ultra-race

Everyone has heard the story of the Tortoise and the Hare right? How about the story about the man and the woman, the young man and the older man? The story where one shoots off at ridiculously unsustainable speed and bonks completely and the other goes steady from the start and maintains a good pace throughout the race. No prizes for guessing which one is which here.

In my opinion the longer the race goes on the less influential genetic factors, such as strength, fitness and body type commonly benefiting male or younger athletes, become and more emphasis can be placed on the subjects of these blogs, nutrition, hydration and for this one, pacing.

This is one of the reasons we see female ultra runners outperforming their male and younger counterparts in competitions and phenomenal athletes like Chrissie Wellington and Rory Bosio* closing the gap at the top end of the field as well. [*Rory's UTMB was the overall best performance of the year from both male & female athletes in 2013, no discussion.]

Pacing is another often hotly discussed topic and one that can have a great impact on the overall performance and, less we forget, the enjoyment of a runner at any distance of running. The two main sides of this discussion are those who favour the chasing of that Holy Grail "The negative spilt" and set off steady and those who believe you should go hard or go home and then persevere until the finish, through sickness and in health.

Both believe their own way is the route to optimum performance and the quickest way from A to B, so what's in it? Does how quickly you move affect how quickly you get somewhere? Could a little hesitancy actually pay off in the long run?

I chatted to 2013 Lakeland 100 Winner Stuart Mills and he is well known for being an advocate of a fast start, so much so that he disappeared from most people's eyes within about 8 seconds of the start of Lakeland 100 last year. Stu believes that you should run fast whilst you can, because everyone gets tired in the second half of the race anyway so why not "make hay whilst the sun shines". If you have anything left at the end then you could have gone faster right?

Stu also has some interesting ideas about fatigue being mainly a psychological, rather than physiological, barrier to our running and the positive effect of a fast first half, high placement on the leader board and closer proximity to the finish can all lead to a positive effect on fatigue and buoy us on to running faster in the later stages of an ultra marathon.

I like the idea and definitely feel it is a factor in the latter stages of races, although I think other factors are key too and if you've run too fast to get any food  and water down your neck then no amount of positive thinking will keep those wheels on. Experienced ultra runners, who have a good handle of their hydration & fuelling, may be the key beneficiaries of this type of pacing.

Robert Britton, member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad, Team Inov-8 and Team Centurion, takes a look at different approaches to pacing your ultra-race

Photo: Robbie at the 2013 Spartathlon

I tend to err on the side of caution a little more at the start of a race, fully accepting that I may slow a little in the second half but doing my best to stay as close as possible to that negative or equal split and keep within my own comfort levels for at least the first 12 hours!

Many elite marathoners will have lactate, VO2 Max and other tests done to let them know where they are with their training and what pace they should hit their marathon at. The difference with ultra marathons, particularly with trail races, is that it is not a simple mathematical calculation as to what pace you should be going. Many use heart rate monitors to look at effort levels, but they also can be affected by a variety of things on the day.

Nothing can beat the inbuilt human knowledge of how you feel and I take the idea for the first half of ultra marathons of "if it feels too hard then it probably is."

Ian Sharman believes "the single biggest mistake I see in ultras is runners going out too hard" and if someone who has run 100 miles on trail in 12:44 reckons "keeping things relaxed and fun for as long as possible in a race helps to make the second half significantly faster" then there must be something to it right?

Cavin Woodward famously ran an 11:38 100 miles to break the World record in 1975. He also set 50 mile and 100km world records in the same race. Cavin was with Stu Mills and his splits show this for sure with 1 hour  41 minutes longer for the second 50 miles!

Yet Cavin doesn't hold the 100 mile record any more, he is behind three more even paced runners, Don Ritchie, Denis Jalybin and Oleg Kharitonov, the latter two racing to break the record before Kharitonov put down some 6 minute miles at mile 93 to take the lead just 135 metres from the finish! 135 metres! That is a photo finish within 100 mile races and both broke the previous world record.

If Kharitonov had run a quicker first half would he have been ahead of Jalybin anyway or did his conservative start allow him to put in that spectacular finish? Could he have gone quicker?

We're not all crazy Russian 100 milers trying to break records though so what if you are only trying to complete the race, rather than compete? That is where Stuart and I agreed on somewhere in the middle. A conservative effort, well within your comfort zone, means that you are more likely to have an "enjoyable" second half, be able to keep an eye on the important factors such as hydration and fuelling, thus leaving you less likely to physically fall apart.

Allow for some slowing down and give yourself some breathing space and expect a decline in the second half.

Aim to keep the difference to a minimum but never plan to run equal splits, just try to. Does that make sense? At the SDW 100 last year my pacing plan didn't have equal splits but after the first half I did my best to get those equal splits and stop the slowing down. After 50 miles it's just the home straight anyway?

What's the point of a plan if you don't really have much of a chance to keep to it? When he was planning his record breaking Land’s End to John O’Groats run, (835 miles in  10 days 2 hours) Team GB 24hr Team Manager Richard Brown set a detailed mileage and pacing plan for each day …and kept to it.

Having an optimal pacing plan A is essential, as well as a Plan B, C, D, E...Z. Stuff goes wrong in ultra marathons and to expect it makes you better prepared. You want to make it as easy as possible on the day so do as much work beforehand as you can and have a plan!

2013 Grand Union Canal race winner and fellow coach at Centurion Running, James Elsons reckons that "the longer the race, the bigger the potential impact of poor pacing" and that "a minute per mile saved early on can very easily cost 3 minutes per mile+ at the end."

Ultra Marathons shouldn't hurt until the second half, except for a little tiredness in the legs (hours of running will do that) so if it does then ease off and reap the benefits in the final straight. If you get it right the first 80 miles are easy...

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

About The Author

Robert Britton

Robbie is a 100 mile runner who is a member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad and Team Centurion and likes to run ridiculous distances as quickly as possible.

To provide enough food to feed a monster running habit, Robbie coaches other ultra marathon runners through www.robbiebritton.co.uk and is also a member of the coaching team at Centurion Running. He likes to dabble with a bit of writing so that others can learn from his mistakes and enjoy the sport as much as he does.

Robbie is also a is a Profeet ambassador.

www.robbiebritton.co.uk

"Pain is inevitable, suffering is just part of the fun"

 
 
 
 
 

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