Pacing: A case for pace feedback (or not?)

Sweat Science reports on a recent ACSM presentation, research Luke McIlvenna from the UK investigated whether pacing feedback improved 5 k running performance in a group of 8 runners. Using a randomized cross-over study*, runners did each of the following trials:

  1. No distance feedback provided
  2. Feedback after each kilometer
  3. Continuous feedback showing the distance covered at all times

Incidentally, despite the small sample size here, by having each athlete do each condition, they were able to increase the statistical power of their study, offsetting that small N.

What did they find?

Statistically speaking, not a lot. While the trials were not significantly different and the effect size (i.e., the effective size of the change in running time) was relatively small, there appeared to be a consistent trend where the feedback trials performed better than the no feedback trial. They also found a “significant interaction” between the trial condition and the distance covered. Drawing on what was reported on Sweat Science and my own reading of the data, it would appear that feedback may influence overall pacing and finish times we don’t understand by influencing your pacing as the race is run. Huh? In other words, not knowing how fast your running may ultimately make you either more conservative throughout the race or in the final miles or meters.

What the results mean to you

Alex from Sweat Science offered his take on this, but I see things a bit differently. While I agree that data feedback can be overused/relied up, GPS feedback can and should be used as a learning tool, especially for those who are in the learning process, or those struggling to learn how to pace effectively. However, I also would note that this study was limited to the 5 k distance. As anyone knows, distance can significantly impact not only perceived effort, but also performance demands. In my opinion, being in tune with your effort-pace and dialing in your pacing strategy becomes essential the longer the event. In extended competitions of 2 hrs or more, sticking to your plan is probably going to be in your best interest. One interesting thing to understanding effort-pace is that come race day an experienced athlete will typically know after the first 1/4 or 1/3 if you can hold a higher pace, maintain or cut back on your race pace.

The take home message here is practice, practice, practice! You cannot be too good at pacing. But some of that practice means running without feedback and then looking back at the data. Those of you using a power meter probably know all about this.

Be on the lookout for my upcoming Tipcast on XTerra pacing!

* This type of testing means the order they did the trials was random and balanced, so that some each condition in different orders, helping to rule out any impact from a prior trial (i.e., a good way to spot real differences).

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