Pacing Yourself in an Ultra

This topic is a particular favourite of mine and something I was discussing with a friend of mine on the trails just this past weekend. He’s about to embark on his first ultra marathon in a few weeks time at the 50km Southern Highlands Challenge and throughout the weeks we’ve been training together, one of the big questions that gets discussed time and time again is what pace do you set out at? It’s also a chance to release some inner geek, draw some pretty graphs and over-analyse data. Given our discussions, I thought it high time to set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and draft some thoughts on this very notion given the major 100s in Australia are just around the corner.

The first thing to say is that most people struggle with this, and it’s mainly through the following reasons a.) A lack of preparation b.) A lack of understanding of the course and c.) a lack of understanding of our own ability. I will however say that anecdotally, women are far better at pacing themselves than men – there’s this little thing called testosterone that gets in the way with us males. Although I do hear it affects some females too if they’ve been on the old performance enhancers 🙂 Something which I’m hopeful doesn’t really affect our little backwater sport of ultra running.

How to pace correctly is the age-old question that hits us in any form of race that we do from 5km up to 100 miles – how do you get it right? It’s pretty well-known that many people invariably head out way too quickly – One of our kiwi friends, Matt Bixley (a statistician by trade) has also done some analysis of this in ultras too, to the point that even some of the most experienced and elite guys and gals don’t get it right either.

Pace analysis of the podium at the 24hr world champs in Brive a few years ago
Pace analysis of the podium at the 24hr world champs in Brive a few years ago (credit – Matt Bixley)

While every runner is different, the above graph shows that Jurek and race winner Inoue went out pretty hard, but the difference between them is that Inoue took slightly longer walking breaks early on in the race, compared to Jurek who between 10 and 15 hours had some laps blow out in a big way compared to the other two. Cuden who finished third in that race was a lot more consistent throughout the entire race, and bar a rough patch between 18-2o hours held a very constant and steady pace with plenty of walking breaks. But what does all this mean?

The question we try to resonate within ourselves is invariably this – if we head out too slowly, is this time we could have made up later on in the race, meaning that we could have gone quicker? For example, this is a question Cuden might have been asking himself when reflecting upon his splits above. To be honest, it’s a discussion I’ve heard so many times at the end of a race, when someone has finished feeling great and then proceeds to believe that they could have even quicker had they pushed the pace a little more early on. But, had they pushed that pace too much early on, what kind of effect would it have had on their race if they had done so? Would that extra effort come to haunt them later on in the race, meaning a greater slow-down and a worse time? Which is what we saw to some extent in Jurek’s performance. Inoue, despite going out hard with Jurek, ultimately was able to hold on a little better than Jurek in the second half of the race, but why was that?

So how do you get it right? Well, there’s three simple things that we mentioned above that contribute to getting your pacing right and we’ll go through them one by one. There are others too, but we like to make things easy!

#1 Lack of preparation

Be honest with yourself and make sure you get the appropriate amount of miles in for the race you're doing
Be honest with yourself and make sure you get the appropriate amount of miles in for the race you’re doing

So what do we mean by lack of preparation? Quite simply, it’s a lack of the appropriate amount of kilometers for the race that you’re entering, which then leads you to believe that you can head out at a certain pace, based upon what you might have run in the past. When you approach the race that you’re running, one tip to make sure you stay grounded in reality is to make sure you look at the preparation you’ve done specifically for that race. How many kms or miles have you done in this block of training for this race?

All too often, it can be very easy to think, ‘It’s OK, I’ve run 12hrs for 100kms before, I should easily be able to replicate that.’ Wrong. I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. It’s crucial to look at what training you’ve done in respect to the race you’re entering, not what you did last year before you had a two month break and then started doing a bit of training again.

A tip I always follow is to have a mental target as to the number of kms I need to put in for any given distance. This will vary between runners and what they want to achieve, but I use the following benchmarks, based on the time I have available to me. For anything up to a marathon distance, I’ll make sure I’ve done between 1,200 – 1,500kms in preparation and then depending on the terrain of the course, set a number for the amount of vertical kms I want to achieve too, along with an analysis of the average pace of those kms or miles.

Once I have all of this data, it gives me a very good sense as to the type of pace I should be heading out at for the race. But it’s important to look at the three variables in conjunction with one another and then make an informed judgement, which leads us onto point number two…

#2 Lack of understanding of our own ability

Throughout my years of racing ultras I generally tend to find that people fall into one of two categories, those who do and those who don’t. Generally however we see a lot of people in the latter category, as evidenced by the huge slow downs we see in most races. In respects, we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to giving ourselves an informed judgement as to what our ability actually is, and some of that comes down to a societal thing. From a very early age, quite a few of us are told how awesome we are and how great we are at certain things. We do in part, celebrate mediocrity.

It’s a highly interesting area for me personally right now as the father of twin girls aged two and a half. As a father, I’m inherently biased as to how wonderful I think they are. They’re my own flesh and blood and anything they do, I find amazing and tell them so. But recently, as my wife and I look at the type of education we wish to give them, we’re headed down a route that aims to try to curb this celebration of mediocrity. Putting a toy back in its rightful place is not an amazing feat of genius and shouldn’t be celebrated is our line of thinking, and thus because many of us have been brought up in a manner that tells us we’re amazing, we tend to carry this over into our own adult lives.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone is like this, indeed many ultra runners I know are extremely humble in nature, but I am applying this rule to the general population, not the running population per se. But it’s an interesting notion to consider. As a manager in the workplace, I see it among fresh graduates who seek adulation and applause for simply performing their jobs.

So what do you do as an ultra runner to help provide that sense of objectivity? Well there are a number of things. The first is to go to point one above and look at all of the training you’ve done and try to remove yourself from the emotional connection you have to it. Afterall, it’s your training, you’ve invested in it and of course you’re going to believe you can run that sub 10 hr 100kms. But when you really critically self-analyse, have you done the hard yards to get there?

If you struggle with that, get another person to look at your training. Someone with experience who can give you an honest appraisal as to where you might be at and what’s achievable. This is where a coach pays dividends as they’re not emotionally invested in your training and can give you a blunt and honest assessment.

#3 Lack of course knowledge

There are many people who run a cracking race, pace wise who have never set foot on a course before, but similarly there are many that don’t because of it, and the reason is not necessarily logging thousands of kms or miles on the track (although it helps!), but more so understanding and researching the course before you race.

One of the major reasons why pacing yourself in an ultra is a very difficult thing to get right is not because of the above two items (although they play a major part), but because of the huge amount of variable we see in terrain over the course of our chosen race. A perfect illustration of this is Australia’s largest trail marathon, Six Foot Track. Pacing yourself right in this race is vital if you want to secure the best time you can, and it’s all about understanding the different variable and when to push and when to hold back.

Six Foot Track in Australia is a great example of a race where knowing the course and planning your pace properly can mean a great result on race day
Six Foot Track in Australia is a great example of a race where knowing the course and planning your pace properly can mean a great result on race day

Six Foot is a great example because of the nature of the track. There is 15kms of sweeping downhill at the start, 10kms of mountain climbing and then 19kms of quad-sapping undulating trails. Every year we hear tales of heroic blow-ups and it’s because of one thing- people running far to quickly in the first 15kms because it feels so easy to do so.

As with any ultra, you have to weigh up and reconcile with the fact that whatever you put in early on into the race, it’s going to affect you later on. So despite the fact that the first 15kms of your race might feel incredibly easy, will you still be running this pace in the last 5-10kms? The answer is probably no.

A tip I use is to try to break down each race I do into sections, work out a pace or time for each (roughly) and then reconcile that with the cumulative effects that could have on me later on in the race. The reality is that there’s no magic formula (as far as I know), and there’s a bit of guess-work involved too. However despite all the advice given in this article, there is also one other major piece of advice I always go by as I’m running an ultra… and that is…

How fast is my ticker (heart) going? Despite all the technology and data that is around for us to analyse, simply use that as a guide. The real indication you should always listen to is your heart. Walk when you need to walk and don’t be afraid to do it early and often – it will save your race later on in the day and also make for a far more enjoyable experience.

Dan

3 thoughts on “Pacing Yourself in an Ultra

    1. Like the graph and pace analysis. Pretty accurate. Agree with your comments on pace – how hard should I go or how easy should I start??

  1. Yes I can confirm that most of the ultras I ran at excessive speed in the first half and finished poorly in the second half. You need to control your running speed and know what speed is sustainable for the whole race.

Leave a Reply