Runners often think that they should run a consistent mile-by-mile pace to maximize their race performance. However, it is not quite that simple. Anyone who has actually run a race knows that their pace for any given mile is impacted significantly by terrain; gravity significantly increases the energy demand at any given pace, creating fatigue and the need to recover.
A better approach is to aim for even energy pacing.
We all know uphill is harder than the flats. Too often athletes charge up a hill trying to maintain a close-to-target pace. Dr. Jack Daniels has produced some excellent charts that show the impact of grade on oxygen demand when using a treadmill. The chart below shows how much more oxygen consumption (V02) is needed to “maintain” pace as the grade increases. What is startling is how even a small increase in grade can dramatically change energy demand.
For example: If a runner holds 8:00/mile on a 2% grade, it will feel like 7:08/mile pace. This demonstrates clearly that trying to hold one even pace is detrimental to your race performance and that you will significantly overrun your pacing strategy (unless, of course, you are running on a flat course).
|10:00 Mile||9:14 Mile||8:35 Mile||8:00 Mile||7:30 Mile||7:04 Mile|
|0% grade||V02 27.4|
|1% grade||V02 29.7|
|2% grade||V02 32.0|
|3% grade||V02 34.3|
|4% grade||V02 36.6|
|5% grade||V02 38.9|
|6% grade||V02 41.3|
The key lesson from this analysis is this: when you hit a hill, slow down & control your effort, and similarly increase pace down hill. Always take into account the impact of gravity on your ability to perform. An effective strategy for the same sample 8:00 min pace runner, is to slow down to about a 9:14 min pace when running up a hill of 2% grade. As you can see above, the runner will still be consuming oxygen at a consistent V02 of about 35.3, with about the same energy cost of an 8:11 pace on flat ground.
When thinking about your next race, consider the terrain in your pacing plan. Taking an even energy pacing approach will ensure you do not overrun portions of the course forcing you recover. For the New Yorkers who read this blog, next time you are racing in central park and facing the northern hill, hold back as you climb and you will crest with strength giving you the opportunity to pass the many runners who climbed too fast and are recovering from going out too hard. Chances are that you will never see them again as you whistle by.
Moreover, this approach will delay the impacts of fatigue and will result in a stronger overall performance. Experienced racers know that hills wear down their competitors and the race is won at the end when the field has weakened. Nothing inspires more than having gas in the engine and passing competitors as the finish approaches!
Run well, run smart.