Does Knowing Your Splits Help You Run Faster?

One of the poster presentations at the ACSM conference last month, by Scottish coach and research student Luke McIlvenna, looked at the role of “distance feedback” on pacing and running performance. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time, so it was fun to chat with McIlvenna about some of the pros and cons of knowing exactly how far you’ve gone and how fast you’re going. There are no simple answers, but it’s worth thinking about.

In the study, eight runners did a treadmill 5K time trial on three separate occasions, under the following three conditions:

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

A couple of key differences are evident in the pacing. When the runners didn’t receive any pace feedback, they started more slowly through the first 2K or so. And they weren’t able to muster the same finishing kick as in the feedback conditions (not surprisingly, since they didn’t know exactly when they’d be finishing). Overall, the no-feedback times were slower, though the difference didn’t reach statistical significance.

The runners’ perceived effort, on the other hand, was essentially identical in all three conditions. They were “trying” just as hard in each case, but running more conservatively when they didn’t know how far and fast they were going.

So what does this mean? You could argue that it means that runners should get as much distance feedback as they can (GPS watches) in order to run faster in workouts and competition. Or you could draw the opposite conclusion and say that these runners obviously had poor internal pace sense, so they should spend more time without feedback in order to learn to judge what their bodies are capable of.

I don’t think there’s one right answer – it very much depends on the details of your individual psychology. I do think that over-reliance on external feedback is a much more common problem than under-reliance these days. As McIlvenna pointed out when I spoke to him, checking your pace can help keep you honest, but it can also limit you. If you’re having a great day, and you check your pace and realise you’re going faster than you’re “supposed to,” you’re likely to slow down.

In the end, the simplest thing to do is to try some personal experimentation. Do some runs or workouts with no feedback. (You can still wear your watch, but don’t check it until after the run). Do others with full feedback, or limited feedback. If there are huge discrepancies in how you run under different conditions, it may suggest that pacing is something you should work on. And if nothing else, it’s kind of fun to see how close you can come to nailing your splits while running blind!

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