Wednesday March 9, 2011

Slow and Steady

University of Dayton research reveals women are better than men at marathon pacing. The study found age and finish time also affect pacing.

A new study from the University of Dayton reveals women are better than men at marathon pacing, a strategy proven to improve marathon performance.

Researchers also found older runners are better pacers than younger runners, and runners with faster finish times are better pacers than those who finish slower.

Runners and coaches can use these findings to overcome these tendencies and increase the odds of more optimal pacing.

The study, "Age, Sex and Finish Time as Determinants of Pacing in the Marathon," is published in the February issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Faculty and graduate student researchers determined each factor had an independent and consistent effect on pacing. The study is the first to investigate the influence of gender on marathon pacing.

"What this means to me, if I'm a coach, is that I should focus on pacing strategy for younger runners; in particular, men," said Paul Vanderburgh, co-author of the study and the University's associate provost and dean of graduate, professional and continuing education.

Vanderburgh recommended the following strategies to improve pacing:

  • Run with a pace group during the marathon
  • Train by watching splits and striving for a steady pace over long distances
  • Have a good sense of what your maximum distance running speed is
  • Stay disciplined

A consistent running speed or an even pace strategy is known to improve marathon performance. Runners often "hit the wall" after burning all their carbohydrates — a combination of glycogen depletion and low blood sugar levels. Pacing can postpone or limit this effect, Vanderburgh said.

"The goal of training is to raise your maximum distance running speed with interval or speed training and to develop endurance with long, slow distance runs," he said. "In a marathon, a runner should run at as low a percentage of his or her maximum speed as possible while maintaining a desired pace. This allows a runner to spare carbohydrates and burn fat, increasing endurance by delaying glycogen depletion."

In this study, pacing was defined as a runner's average speed during the last six miles divided by the average speed of the first 20.2 miles. A number closer to 1 indicates better pacing. The researchers chose this definition because the last six miles are when a runner experiences the greatest variability in running speed.

Vanderburgh and his colleagues expected older runners to be better pacers because of their experience and their run-speed memory. Similarly, they anticipated runners with faster finish times to be better pacers because of the relationship between pacing and performance.

The gender influence, however, surprised them. Vanderburgh said it's likely due to women's greater ability to spare carbohydrates and use fat in endurance exercise. As a result, they show less variability in running speed as the race enters the final six miles.

"It's true: slow and steady wins the race," said Vanderburgh, who was also a subject in the study and lamented that his pacing suffered in the final six miles. "It's easy to fool ourselves into breaking pace, but the last six miles of a marathon are unlike any other six miles you'll run."

The study used data from 186 men and 133 women marathoners during a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon. The course was a one-mile loop with pace markers throughout, which facilitated pacing strategy. The temperature never exceeded 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

The authors of the research included Vanderburgh, health and sport science professor Peter Titlebaum and graduate students Dan March and Mackenzie Hoops.

University of Dayton graduate student Nick Trubee is currently conducting a follow-up study on a larger scale, taking into account the effect of weather temperature on pacing.

For more information, contact Meagan Pant, assistant director of media relations, at 937-229-3256 or mpant1@udayton.edu.