The art of pacing: How to pace your next race to perfection

Is hitting 'the wall' all too familiar to you on race day? You're just not being zen enough, argues columnist Tim Heming. Here he unpicks Kat Matthews' Sub8 victory and just how she kept her cool to make history

an athlete meditating on the top of a podium to symbolise pacing and being zen

Kat Matthews looked to have climbed from the canvas for a thrilling comeback victory in the recent Pho3nix Sub8 Project. But the reality belies a more introspective approach to pacing we can all learn from.


Once a pass happens late in an iron-distance marathon, the vanquished rarely recovers. So, for any fan of the sport, the drama towards the end of the Pho3nix Foundation’s Sub8 Project was something to treasure.

In the closing kilometres on the Dekra Lausitzring in east Germany, both Nicola Spirig and Kat Matthews were already destined to break the Sub8 mark; the remaining challenge was for victory.

When the London 2012 winner ran down the Brit, the tenacious Ironman World Champs runner-up rallied for the win. It was a stirring spectacle.

Yet while the idea of a fading Matthews drawing from her last reserves might be a fitting narrative to set to the Rocky soundtrack, it doesn’t hold entirely true.

It also provides a lesson most of us could heed when it comes to our own races. Matthews was exceptional on the day, leading out of the water, her team of pacers helping her extend that advantage on the bike, and then stopping the clock at a scarcely fathomable 7:31:54.

But when it came to the marathon, the art of those 42.2km wasn’t in the fightback, but simply pacing it to perfection. Whether being chased, overtaken, or re-taking the lead, Matthews’s pace hardly moved from just under 4mins/km.

Sure, the athletes had pacers, but only they knew how they felt. It was a question of getting from A to B in the quickest time by understanding perceived effort and not worrying unduly about the opponent.

Dig a little deeper into the numbers and Spirig was already slowing when she first passed Matthews. If the Swiss hoped the overtake would destroy the spirit of the Brit, Matthews knew better.

Yet it also shouldn’t come as a surprise. Look at all the Ironman marathons in the army physio’s short history in the sport, and you’ll see the same pattern emerge.

Pacing is an artform. Look at Scotland’s David McNamee, who has twice finished on the podium in Kona, his willingness to be patient paying dividends as he runs down rivals in the final kilometres.

All paces are relative, Matthews and McNamee might have a faster pace than many of us, but they keep the ego suppressed, both on the bike and in the early kilometres of the run.

In a recent discussion over Ironman training, it was argued that attempting to dial in a specific run pace was always too fast for most amateurs.

On the big day, a high proportion of non-pro athletes ended up walking for long periods of the marathon. The crux was they’d actually finish faster by jogging 42.2km.

It may be a provocative theory, but if we can park the ego and understand our fitness levels, it might deliver the perfect evenly-paced split we crave.


Top illustration: Daniel Seex