Could pace groups be too good to be true?

Are you worried about how to properly pace your upcoming marathon or half marathon? Fear not, as thousands of runners who will be toeing the line next to you on race day are in the same boat. That’s why the popularity of pace groups at marathons and half marathons has exploded over the last few years.

Pace groups promise to get you to the finish line on target or no more than two minutes faster – for free.  It sounds like the perfect race strategy: just find the pacer, follow as best you can, and hang on for the ride.

RELATED: The 5 Biggest Marathoning Mistakes

But could pace groups be too good to be true? Could relying on a pacer actually hurt your chances of recording a PR? Let’s explore this question further over the following pages.

Is following a pacer a good strategy?

Most pacers will finish very close to their goal time. So, why would it be a bad idea to follow one?

Pacers, like he rest of us, aren’t always perfect. The pacing strategy isn’t always even or optimal. For example, if you were trying to run a half marathon 15 minutes slower than your best time (like many pacers do), you could easily run the first two miles two minutes too fast and still finish. However, run two minutes faster than planned for the first two miles of a PR effort and you’ll fade hard over the final 5K.

Pacers don’t intentionally start out too fast, breeze through water stops, or otherwise not run an optimal race strategy — but it happens. Because the pace is relatively easy for them, however, many pacers don’t realize how even being just slightly off pace can ruin someone else’s chances at a PR finish.

After six years of coaching over 700 marathon runners, here are the two most common pace-group mistakes to be aware of:

1. Starting Out Too Fast

The following is a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. I recently coached a runner we’ll call Barbara who was training for her second half marathon. Barbara’s goal was to finish the race in under 2 hours and 30 minutes, which, given her training paces, was within her capabilities.

With her detailed race plan and specific target paces in hand, Barbara toed the line ready to run the 11:27 per-mile pace average. However, as she glanced across the mass of runners, she noticed a runner holding up a sign saying “2:30 pace group.”

“Great,” she thought. “Now I don’t have to worry about my pace, I can just run with that guy!”

As the race started, Barbara locked onto the pacer and just focused on staying as close to the group as she could. After the first mile, Barbara looked down at her watch and saw the split read 10:50. With the adrenaline from the race, the 10:50 mile didn’t feel that difficult and Barbara figured she was OK. As the second mile came to close, Barbara once again noticed the pace was too fast, this time 11:10. The third mile was again a tad too quick at 11:20.

Soon, Barbara started to fade from the pace group and eventually finished the race in 2:35. Once she reached her family and recapped her race, they informed her that the pacer had come in exactly at 2 hours and 30 minutes. While the pacer was easily able to handle being 70 seconds fast over the first three miles, it destroyed Barbara’s chances of finishing strong.

Unfortunately, this an all-too-common experience for runners who follow a pacer. Because of the adrenaline of the race and having to weave through thick crowds, it’s possible for a pacer to start out far too fast. And, because the pace is quite easy for the pacer, they may not even realize it and it certainly won’t impact their ability to finish strong.

2. Crowding And Pace Fluctuations

Along the same line, some runners find the pace fluctuations that occur during a long marathon race – slowing down/speeding up on hills, at water stops — and the general spurts of adrenaline and fatigue that all runners go through during a race difficult to deal with mentally. Runners who use a pace group need to be cognizant of their own personal strengths and weaknesses during a race and be ready to handle these pace fluctuations without mentally defeating themselves. If the pacer is constantly getting ahead of you on the uphills or pulls away as you have a bad patch (which is likely), it can be the straw that snaps your focus and confidence. This can be a difficult task for a novice runner if you’re not prepared for it.

Likewise, another issue you may confront when running with a pace group is the crowding and general chaos at the start and through the water stations. Generally, the slower your pace group, the more crowded the water stops will be and the more difficult it will be to navigate your way through them. Getting adequate fluids and fuel is critical to race-day success, even early in the race, so missing opportunities because of crowded stations is less than ideal. Many Olympic runners have had their race foiled by missing just one water bottle – and they only need to run for a little over two hours!

RELATED: Practicing Marathon Nutrition And Hydration

How To Use A Pace Group To Hit Your Goal

I’m not saying that all pacers do a terrible job or that pace groups shouldn’t ever be a small component of your race strategy. As a coach, I am grateful that runners offer their services and volunteer to help others achieve their goal. I am simply pointing out that relying 100% on a pace group is not how you should approach and plan your goal race. Instead, you should learn to use the pace group to your advantage – by stalking them.

Stalking a pace group means using the pace group as a marker and for motivation during the race, but relying on your own sense of pace (or watch) and natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executing your race strategy. This plan allows you to implement the race strategy you’ve trained for and is optimal for you. Yet, you can still take advantage of the pace group as an opportunity to have a barometer to assess your progress — as well as a group for motivation, should you need one.

I advise the athletes I coach to start the first 4 to 5 miles of a marathon running their own pace that they’ve honed through hours of practice and to forget about any pace group entirely. After 5 miles, they can look around and try to find the pace group and use the mass as an indicator to make sure they don’t lose focus. If they find the pacer pulling away, it’s important that they’re in tune with their time and internal sense of pace to verify they’re still on target.

If you’re a runner who is motivated by a group, run closer to the group to take advantage of the encouragement offered by the pacer and other group members.  If having other runners cheering disrupts your natural rhythm, simply run on the opposite side of the road. Just remember to keep your eye on your own pace and effort and be sure not too get too carried away.