Why does running have to be so damn hard? You head out the door with a spring in your step but five minutes later, you’re huffing and puffing and ready to quit. Or maybe you check your watch all the time, relying on it to tell you precisely how fast you’re running and how many miles you have left to go. (Been there, done that!) One reason for your burning lungs? You have trouble pacing yourself. Here’s your guide to learning how to set yourself at a challenging yet doable pace on your next run.
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Why Is Pacing So Difficult?
When you start your run, it can feel like your breathing rate skyrockets after just a few steps. That’s because your cardiovascular system isn’t warmed up yet, says New York City-based running coach Jess Underhill of Race Pace Wellness. “When someone breathes heavily, it confuses them and they don’t know how to regulate their breath,” she says. “They either quit or think they aren’t cut out for runningg, thinking they can’t even make it down the block.”
Group fitness habits might be to blame, too. According to Underhill, our approach to spin and HIIT classes and AMRAPs (as many reps as possible) can influence the way we prepare ourselves for a run. “It’s a different mindset. In classes, you go all out and push yourself to the extreme. You can’t do that when you’re just starting out running or else you won’t go very far.”
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7 Ways to Learn to Pace Yourself
Whether you’re a marathon maven or a newbie seeking to cross your first finish line, pounding pavement at a consistent pace is not as intuitive as it may seem. Like any skill, you have to practice tuning into your body and learning how different paces feel.
1. Slow down.
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking it down a few notches is the first step to getting a grip on your pace. “Learning how to run at a truly easy intensity is one of the hardest things for people, whether they are just beginning to run or trying to run faster times,” says Caleb Masland, a North Carolina-based USATF-certified running coach. “Starting out too hard can quickly turn running into a frustrating versus a rewarding experience.” Underhill advises her runners to start slower than you think. That way, you finish feeling like you could keep going. Another way check yourself? Run at a pace where you can easily carry on a conversation.
2. Check your breath.
Paying attention to your breath is one of the best ways to measure the pace, effort and intensity of your run, says Masland. Your breathing shouldn’t be labored. Think easy breaths in every three to four steps, and easy breaths out every three to four steps, he says. Also take note of your breathing changes — from uphills to downhills, or when you’re running slower versus faster —suggests Underhill. “Pay attention to your personal nuances and what those feel and sound like,” she says.
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3. Tune into your body.
Underhill recommends doing a full body check while you run. This includes your breathing rate, arm swing, stride length and hitting the ground. “Start by listening to the sound of your feet, then your breath and see what these sound and feel like at an easy pace,” she says. “When those change, your pace has changed.”
Keep in mind, this means you need to leave the headphones at home since jamming to your favorite tunes makes it difficult to pay attention to your breath and body. Plus, most people naturally speed up or slow down during the course of a song, Underhill explains.
4. Don’t be afraid to run-walk.
Instead of focusing on building overall running mileage, Masland says, “Think in terms of increasing your total training time.” That may mean you start with a run-walk method so you can spend more time on your feet. “The reason for that is so you make sure your running stays in the aerobic intensity range. That will build your capacity to run longer in the future.”
Masland suggest walking for five minutes and running for one minute, repeating that cycle for 30 to 40 minutes, three times a week. The following week, increase the ratio so you’re running two minutes and walking for three minutes. “If you take it nice and easy, your body will start to adapt,” he says.
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5. Try a prediction run — and repeat.
This is one trick Underhill likes to offer runners: Guess how long it will take you to run a mile (not your fastest mile!) and then run at that pace. “Tune into all your body’s cues that tell you how hard you’re working and repeat,” she says. “Keep doing this over and over and try to hit the same effort each time,” says Underhill.
6. Let go of expectations.
It’s no secret that we’re a numbers-oriented and data-obsessed society. But instead of chasing your next PR, focus on the quality of your run. After all, how well you run is influenced by what’s going on in your life, from stress to sleep to major life events. “These factors are going to impact how your feel when you run,” she says. If you let go of your expectations, you can better tune into how your body feels and how to pace yourself.
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7. Don’t compare yourself.
While running groups are a great way to get into running and motivate you, there’s a danger in sticking with the crowd when you’re learning how to pace yourself. “It’s OK if you need to run less or run slower. Other runners in the group may have been running longer than you,” Masland explains. If you follow the pack, you may end up running too fast or too many miles, which can lead to common running injuries. “At the end of the day, it only matters how you compare to yourself. The only person you’re ultimately trying to do better than is yourself,” he says.