13 August 2007

Poker Pacing

Jeff Shilt, M.D.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried different running approaches to get faster. This year, I’ve concentrated on running the back half of my runs faster than I do the front half. This pace can be different from session to session, but I try to always negative split the “effort”.

I want to state right from the start that I know very little about poker, so if I don’t represent the game (Hi:Low) correctly, then I apologize. However, one has to admit the terminology is “catchy”!!

So what is poker pacing? I choose my target heart rate for the day, which is generally dependent on the duration of the run. For my runs that are 1 hour or greater, this corresponds to my projected steady hr that I will utilize for Ironman pacing. In the first third of the run, my effort that day is never higher than the specified rate. For me, especially when fatigued, this usually involves 18-20 minutes of very easy running. This effort is usually 12-15 beats below my goal in the early going, and it naturally drifts up to my specified “High” limit.

In the middle of the run, I elevate my effort until my heart rate matches my target heart rate.

The final third of the run is most crucial and where the most benefit from the effort occurs. My heart rate in this period is never below the “Low” limit. Typically this is challenging during the initial effort, but after overcoming the mental urge to slow down the pace becomes comfortable. If feeling fresh, I will end the run topped out at my aerobic ceiling for the last 10-15 minutes.

I find several advantages in this approach. First, it allows me to ease into each run, relieving the mental stress of hitting a particular pace. I really like to take it easy during the beginning of the run. The more fatigued I am, the longer it might take to reach my “High” limit. I find this very relaxing, saving valuable mental energy needed later.

Secondly, I find that this more relaxed approach allows me to pace more appropriately on that particular day. It is seldom that I end up bonking or slowing down because my initial effort is one that is more realistic given my condition that day. There is no “pushing” myself to run a pace I likely can’t hold.

The mental benefit of allowing me to take an easy pace in the beginning of the run pays off when I feel obliged to keep the commitment of a harder effort at the end of the run. My experience is that the easy pace in the first half when I’m fresh is not significantly lower than a more pressured pace; whereas the harder effort is typically much faster than a failing second half effort in which you went too hard in the beginning.

I’ve additionally observed an improved ability to gauge the appropriateness of my pacing and level of fatigue. If my elevated heart rate in final 1/3 results in a faster pace, I think it is safe to say I have the appropriate fitness to run that pace AND that I’ve chosen a pace that is reasonable for that fitness. On the other hand, when my extra effort at the end doesn’t result in a faster pace, then I’ve chosen too fast of a pace. When I can’t reach a higher heart rate, it generally means I’m fatigued. This last assumption takes into account that I’ve been using poker pacing in training and am very familiar with my efforts and paces.

This pacing can be used for the other disciplines and the entire race. This has become increasingly apparent as our training group has experimented with “Big Day Training” and variation of our efforts during our swim and bike sessions.

I’ve included my splits from an open water swim I recently completed:

7/26/07 Boulder Swim

time/avg hr

This was a successful pacing session in that I was able to remain relaxed in the beginning and then steadily increase my effort with a concomitant increase in pace over the duration of the swim. As I refine my efforts in the water, I will be able to narrow the range over which heart rates vary. Though, similar to running, I’m continually surprised how much additional effort at the end is required to significantly elevate pace.

It is clear to me that when approaching BDT and iron-distance events with the intention of taking it easy during the swim and first 45 minutes or so of the bike (first third), steady during the remainder of the bike and the first 20 minutes of the run (second third), I’m able to elevate my effort and increase my pace in the final aspects of the run. Using this approach requires significant patience and an thorough understanding of early pacing. My experience is that without training this method, most of us don’t have the self-awareness of early pacing and the mental fortitude to resist the chaos around us on race day.

Just remember, iron-distance racing should be approached as Big Day Training with a fast final 10k.

Hope this is helpful.