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How athletes can use pacing as their secret weapon

In virtually every type of athletic endeavor, pacing is a prerequisite for success. Athletes must maintain enough metabolic capacity to avoid fatiguing before the end of an event or game, requiring the implementation of a pacing strategy. When it's done correctly, however, pacing is a veritable secret weapon, virtually invisible both to the athlete using it and to those watching the athlete. It represents the natural extension of how the race should be run or how the season should be managed.


In his book, Pacing: Individual Strategies for Optimal Performance, BASES-accredited high-performance sport physiologist Kevin G. Thompson details how the simplicity of gauging effort was brilliantly expressed in the concept of teleoanticipation. This concept suggests that athletes must know where the finish line is and regulate their effort over the course of the entire race from the perspective of the finish line. And while external motivators such as money and other competitors can influence the overall performance level, only rarely does the basic pacing strategy change. “Indeed, evidence suggests that the overall pacing strategy is robust enough to remain intact despite deliberate manipulation of the distance completed,” Thompson comments.


Currently the director of the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise at the University of Canberra in Australia, Thompson explains there is a reasonable body of evidence indicating that pacing is a learned process. A variety of elements, including conscious decisions, prior competitive experience, and race simulations performed as part of training, contribute to developing a sense of pace that is appropriate for optimizing performance. “When pacing becomes obvious, it usually means that there were pacing mistakes,” he says, “which provide the dramatic examples that we all think of when we think of the term ‘pacing.'”


Pacing is a powerful competitive tool allowing athletes to disrupt the performance of their competitors and achieve victory. Although the term “pacing” is most specifically used to describe the energy expenditure during an event or season, the difference between using pacing to achieve an optimal performance and using it to disrupt the pacing strategy of competitors is very small. Thompson thinks one of the most interesting aspects of sport is the concept of an athlete making a pacing “mistake” in the middle of an event by deliberately going at a pace that the athlete knows is not sustainable merely to disrupt the race plan of other competitors. He also believes athletes must take calculated risks if they want to improve performance, at least in events in which success is time-based as opposed to determined by merely finishing in front of other competitors. “If the pace is too much faster than the athlete has achieved before (that is, the calculated risk is too large), then the failure could be just as obvious and abject as the success could be glorious,” he warns.


Thompson stresses that pacing, even when it is perfectly executed, will not make a champion out of an ordinary athlete. It is clearly much less important than talent and less important than careful and adequate training. It is, however, crucial in optimizing performance, and the competitive advantage that results from pacing can be learned and practiced and can have a profound impact on performance. “Correct pacing is the secret to feeling that you are on top of the race or getting the best out of yourself versus having a competitive disaster,” he says. “Every athlete, from the club runner trying to collect one more T-shirt by completing the event to the elite competitor chasing a world record or Olympic victory, knows this feeling.”


In Pacing: Individual Strategies for Optimal Performance, Thompson identifies the physiological underpinnings of each type of pacing strategy—all out, positive, even, negative, parabolic, and variable. He then applies his findings by investigating the pacing strategies behind specific sports, such as running, triathlon, cycling, swimming, soccer, tennis, squash, rowing, and basketball.