Lessons From Your Pacers

At this month’s Salinas Valley Half Marathon several members of the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners club joined the race as pace group leaders, or “pacers”. They compared notes afterward and their observations are both instructive and insightful for novice racers.

Here’s the job description of a pacer: given a target finish time they try to finish just under that goal time; it’s best to run each mile as consistent as possible based on the course conditions and hills. They carry balloons so other runners can pick them out and try to keep up. Pacers provide encouragement to those following them.

Pacing is a fun job; you experience all the excitement of a race without the stress of competing for best times or age group awards. There’s a bit of pressure, however, to keep the right pace all the way through. We’re happy to report that all of the pacers at the Salinas Valley Half finished in exactly their assigned goal times.

Here are some of the lessons they learned en route:

1. Everybody starts too far up. This is epidemic at nearly every race. Even though there were prominent signs marking the projected pace times at the start line, each of the pacers ended up passing dozens of people who thought they’d try to get our fast and get a head start on. In the age of chip timing, this strategy is especially foolish.

2. Even splits result in a lot of passing. This is the related corollary of observation #1. During the early miles, pacers running even splits had to avoid runners who shot off the start line with more ambition than talent. Later on, a steady pace assures you of passing these same runners who are now struggling just to make it to the finish.

3. Trust your body - not the runners around you. Some pacers remarked that runners with them made comments about going either too fast or too slow at various points of the race. Good pacers – and any good distance runners – learn to know different paces by feel, not by how the “starting too fast” and “finishing too slow” crowds are moving. The best even-pacing strategy is to practice a given speed in training and then work within that same zone on race day.

4. You can rally. All the pacers observed that during the final few miles of the race, whenever they passed somebody, that person would try to keep up for a while, recognizing that he (or she) was slipping behind the goal pace. Many runners rallied enough to stay ahead of the pace balloons – so just because you’ve hit a bad patch doesn’t mean you can’t regroup and finish strong.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Pacers reported that runners approached them after the race to say they could see the balloons in the distance and they kept them in sight all the way to the finish. Sometimes you need a visible beacon to keep you focused; if there isn’t a pace group in front of you do the same thing with a fellow runner in the distance ahead.

6. Races are parties. Spectators aren’t used to seeing runners with helium balloons tied to them; some pacers heard comments like, “Happy Birthday!” and “Where’s the party?” That’s a nice mindset to have during a race – because really, any race should be a celebration.

The next time you’re at a race, feel free to match strides with a pacer; you’ll end up running a smart race, have shared fun with the group, and you might learn a few tips along the way.

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Changing Your Running Form

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”
- The Eagles, “Take It Easy”

Historical running wisdom has been that you cannot change the way you run; the way you looked while running around the playground as a kid is basically the same way you look when running on streets or trails as a grownup today. The biomechanics you were born with either provide you a lifetime of injury-free running, or a plague of constant injuries.

However, in the last few years there has been a lot of scientific research indicating that you can change your running form – and doing so might actually be good for you. Whether you are a beginner or elite, making your running form more efficient can make you not only faster, but less likely to incur injuries.

This “unconventional wisdom” started a few years back with the barefoot and minimalist shoe boom. Running barefoot or with minimal shoes forces your foot strike - the way your foot hits the ground - to be on the midfoot or forefoot, with a much softer impact than traditional running shoes. Traditional running shoes have highly padded heels and more lift in the heel and promote a heel strike while running.

However, the question is still very contentious among medical professionals. Many still believe that runners with less-than-perfect biomechanics have no business trying to run barefoot, and should rely on structured shoes or even orthotics. However, most are beginning to accept that efficient running isn’t dependent nearly as much upon the shoe as it is upon the runner.

Whether you wear shoes or not, there are several things you can work on in order to reduce your chances of injury. Next time you are out for an easy run, listen to determine how your foot strikes the ground. Are you a “noise-maker” who lands on your heel and then slaps the ground with your forefoot, or do you run silently with a soft footstrike?

Practice running quietly. There are several ways to do this and all require repetition, concentration, and practice. Try to land more in the midfoot. Take shorter quicker strides. Don’t overstride. You might try leaning a bit more forward but when you do this don’t bend from the waist, but from the ankles.

Danny Dreyer wrote a popular book called “Chi Running,” in which he claims you can improve your running form by concentrating your energy on balance and flow. He identifies 10 components of good running technique and we’ve added some explanatory advice after each one: flexibility (stretch for a few minutes each day), posture (run upright, no slumping), good leg motion (don’t overstride), cadence (quick short steps), body sensing (sense tension and relax your muscles), mental focus (concentrate on making changes), upper/lower body coordination (both work together rather than in opposition), good breathing habits (deep belly breathing), bent knees and elbows (improves arm and leg swing), and staying relaxed (consciously relax your muscles and run comfortably fast).

More and more runners are now doing actual drills once or twice a week, usually before or after running, to improve their form and flexibility. You can have fun with skips, high knees, butt kicks, irish dance, striders, hurdle step-overs, quick feet, and many more. Just Google “running drills” and you’ll find lots of them.

Like anything worthwhile, changing your running form takes a bit of effort and some study, but there’s no question it can lead to a healthier and more enjoyable running life.

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