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The Importance of Pacing

This is an excerpt from Pacing by Kevin Thompson.

Pacing in sport is critical for reaching an end point, the finish, in the shortest possible time or ahead of the competition.In many sports, the objective is to outscore the competition; in those sports pacing is often used tactically to score at the right time, when chances of success are most likely. Therefore, in virtually every type of athletic endeavour, pacing is a prerequisite for success. Athletes must maintain enough metabolic capacity to avoid fatiguing before the end of the event, and so a pacing strategy is required.

The pacing strategy for any event depends on the sport, the environment, the equipment and the athlete's psychological and physiological characteristics. The brain plays a key role as it processes complex internal and external information and establishes, maintains and adapts the pacing strategy during training practices and competition. The brain calculates the distance remaining against the current rate of energy production and usage, the energy reserves left and developing fatigue. It then decides the level of force production possible to reach the finish and activates the muscles accordingly. But is it fallible? The answer is clearly a resounding yes! Marathon runners and Ironman participants are acutely aware of the consequences of a pacing strategy that goes wrong, because it can lead to a catastrophic deterioration in race speed and even collapse. Such a collapse can be due to a medical condition that manifests only under an extreme exercise challenge or because of insufficient energy levels, overheating or dehydration. However, we must also acknowledge the strong psychological drive that pushes some competitors beyond their optimal pacing strategy (St Clair Gibson et al. 2013). Why this happens, even in well-trained and experienced athletes, is a complex question, but the fact that it does demonstrates that pacing is a critical skill with the potential to make or break sport performance.

This book describes the history, nature, role and use of pacing in athletic events. This book is written for coaches, athletes and readers with a general interest in sport, as well as those studying sport-related subjects or who might be starting to research the science of pacing in sport. Part I explores the history, nature and role of pacing and explains what is known about the mechanisms that control pacing, from both a physiological and a psychological perspective. These chapters draw on the evidence base developed from scientific studies to describe and explain how athletes set, regulate and execute their pacing strategies during competition. The final chapter of part I builds on the understanding of the mechanisms that regulate exercise and underpin the athlete's selected pacing strategy, by discussing pacing strategies that might optimise athletic performance.

Part II addresses pacing in relation to a wide variety of sports. Included are chapters on the time-dependent sports of swimming, cycling, speed skating, running, triathlon and rowing, in which the application and importance of pacing is most obvious. However, also included are chapters on racket sports (tennis and squash) and several team-based sports (Association football, Australian Rules football, rugby, and basketball), in which the application and importance of pacing may be less apparent. Interviews with world-class athletes and coaches accompany many of the sport chapters. These anecdotal reports give real-life views of and insights into how pacing affects athletes' preparations. The athlete and coach accounts help to marry current sport practice with the sport science research on pacing. These chapters demonstrate that an understanding of pacing is critical in most, if not all, sports.

Athletes need to be able to recognise when the pacing strategy is not working during a competition and to adjust it accordingly. Especially when the stakes are high and the distractions are plentiful, they may be so excited that they forget or fail to execute the pacing strategy they have planned and practised in training. It takes a special athlete to execute an optimal pacing strategy during the very highest levels of competition, such as the Olympic Games or a major championship final, when emotions are hard to control.

A famous, and perhaps unexpected, example of an athlete reading the situation and implementing a deliberate pacing strategy in a crucial contest can be found in one of the most celebrated fights in boxing history - the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight boxing championship. Insiders later said that Foreman and his handlers had actually prayed in the dressing room before the fight for Foreman not to kill Ali, so high was the expectation that Foreman was too strong for him. From the beginning of the bout, Foreman was highly motivated and aggressive, hurting Ali and pinning him against the ropes in the early rounds. It was then that Ali made a fight-winning, pacing-based decision.

'I didn't really plan what happened that night', Ali said. 'But when a fighter gets in the ring, he has to adjust according to the conditions he faces. Against George, the ring was slow. Dancing all night, my legs would have got tired. And George was following me too close, cutting off the ring. In the first round, I used more energy staying away from him than he used chasing me. So between rounds, I decided to do what I did in training when I got tired.' Ali covered up and stayed on the ropes for long periods, much to the dismay of his trainer, who feared he would be hurt. But Ali managed to survive the tirade of punches, and by round 7, Foreman was visibly fatiguing. In round 8, Ali was able to land a final combination of punches to knock out the exhausted Foreman.

The importance of pacing has been acknowledged for thousands of years, as Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare illustrates. The hare's victory was captured in the phrase 'Don't brag about your lightning pace, for slow and steady won the race!' The need to pace physical activity has been evident throughout human history. Early humans made critical decisions about how long and how far to persist with a hunt and whether to target a fast animal or a tired and weak one who might be less able to escape. The phrase that armies ‘walk on their stomachs' conveys a clear recognition that managing energy resources is a proven historical prerequisite for success. Generals who paced the march to battle appropriately and managed their food and water supplies well brought strong, energetic troops into battle, where they often triumphed over their weary, underfed opponents.

In more modern times, the need for pacing permeates most facets of our lives. Parents and teachers teach children how to regulate their academic and extracurricular activities with appropriate pacing strategies. An aspiration of many young and middle-aged adults is to achieve the prized work - life balance, which relates in part to pacing their activities both inside and outside the workplace. Even an elderly person's weekly shopping trip can be an object lesson in pacing - energy levels, current health and fitness, the load of the shopping bags, the availability of rest stops, the transportation options and weather conditions must be calculated when deciding whether to venture out.

Read more from Pacing: Individual Strategies for Optimal Performance by Kevin Thompson.

More Excerpts From Pacing