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Ever since the heroic fable had the slow but steady tortoise beat the hare, the idea that good pacing is critical to athletic performance has been appreciated.
A key objective in most endurance sports is to ensure that energy output is spread as best as possible during a race and is maximal at the end so that you finish as fast as possible.
Best pace strategy involves the perceptive process of proportioning energy use such that you are never working at too high a level, so as to tire quickly, or at too low a level so as to not reach your potential.
It is often difficult for an endurance athlete to judge accurately the pace at which he or she should work to spend the available energy in such a way that the body’s resources are almost exhausted as he or she crosses the finish line.
The inexperienced athlete may overextend him or herself too early or hold back too much. Going to hard too early and depleting energy reserves or failure to push the body to its limit will result if the individual’s perceptions of how hard they can race are consistently inaccurate.
The decision to increase or reduce effort during competitive endurance exercise has a lot to do with athletes’ pacing ability. Therefore, pacing is a function of athletes’ psychophysical perceptions of their ability to maintain a level of effort for an extended period of time.
Research has indicated that elite endurance athletes appear to set a race pace which closely approximates the level of exercise at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood. This pace is set from the athletes’ perceptions of their physiological state as they exercise and possibly also from visual or auditory cues from the immediate environment.
Apparently, elite athletes attend to various discrete physiological symptoms as well as general body feelings, both local and central in origin and then develop an overall subjective feeling of fatigue.
Experience with exercising at different paces is probably the best way to enhance your understanding of what cues you need to pay attention to accurately perceive your level of exertion and achieve an effective race pace.
Relatively evenly paced time trials in Olympic cycling and ice skating competition where the starting half lasts 51% of final time have been found to produce the fastest times.
In Olympic distance running competitions, the pacing graph shows the athletes tend to start relatively slower and accelerate during the final stages of more prolonged events (e.g., 1500 - 10,000 m), even though the starting half is also around 51% of the final time.
In running, a reduction in effort would be expected to lead to a large deceleration because of large drag forces associated with overland ambulation (ie, running!).
Conversely, the relatively small frictional losses to the road in cycling would cause only a moderate slow down if power output were reduced.
The cyclist may be better off expending relatively more energy accelerating and then ‘coast’ to the finish while the runner may do best by maintaining a manageable oxygen debt before sprinting to the finish.
Therefore, the inherent physical nature of cycling versus running - not to mention race tactics and drafting - may partly dictate the best pacing strategy at a physiological level. Nonetheless, there remains a conscious decision by the runners to start slower and finish quickly. Consequently, the basis on which a runner makes the decision to change pace during a race is important to ensure that the pacing strategy is optimal.
Although the athletes’ thoughts in these international level races are unknown, it’s believed that athletes generally learn optimal pacing strategies in training to minimize muscle lactate accumulation or at least the disturbance of pH associated with muscle lactate accumulation.
With extensive practice athletes probably learn to sense low levels of muscle pH (from lactic acid build up) and adjust their pace so that they ideally reach critically low values of pH near the end of a race. This agrees with the point made earlier that elite endurance athletes appear to set a race pace which closely approximates the level of exercise at which lactate begins to accumulate in the plasma
In a study considering pacing and thought styles, Silva and Appelbaum (1989) studied contestants in a U.S. Olympic marathon trial via a questionnaire asking about cognitive strategy use during the race. It was found that a characteristic mental strategy of elite marathon runners in the early part of a race was to ‘mark’ other runners to use them as an indication of pace.
Also, runners finishing 51st or beyond in the marathon tended to adopt a dissociative mental strategy early in the race and maintained this strategy over the majority of the course. On the other hand, top 50 finishers used association (tuning into bodily signals) more regularly over the whole marathon.
The authors suggested that the lack of attention by lower placed finishers to energy expenditure level would cause ineffective pacing. No physiological data were available to support this conclusion, however and no indication of subjects’ relative performance was given (e.g., personal best times).
In support of Silva and Appelbaum’s (1989) study, Schomer (1987) concluded that an associative mental strategy is better than a dissociative focus for pacing in training since the athlete is constantly tuned-in to his or her current level of exertion. Indeed, terms such as ‘effort sense’ and ‘rating of perceived exertion’ imply thoughts about what is occurring within the body during heavy exercise. Thus, it’s most likely that race pacing is optimal under associative thinking and perception.
In a recent review of research to date, Abbiss and Laursen (2008) concluded that during very short duration events (<30 sec) athletes will benfit from an explosive ‘all-out’ pacing strategy. During middle-distance events (1.5-2 mins) athletes tend to adopt a ‘positive’ pacing strategy, whereby after peak speed is reached, the athlete progressively slows.
However, during more prolonged events (>2 mins) it seems that athletes tend to adopt a more ‘even’ or varied pacing strategy based on the environment or hills. During ultra-endurance events (>4 hrs) evidence also suggests that athletes progressively reduce speed as fatigue builds. During such events, nutrition strategies become even more important.
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