What is a Pacer Runner? And How Can They Help Your Race?

What exactly is a pacer runner? And how can they transform your race?

As a sport, running is great because nearly anyone with a half-decent pair of running shoes can participate. That’s not to say that everyone will do well, mind you. If you want to improve your finish time, you’ll generally need to improve one of three things: your mental preparation, physical preparation, or race day strategy.

As with any sport, you can improve your performance through regular practice and good strategy in the moments that matter. One of the most important skill that many runners neglect is pacing.

Enter the pacer runner.

What is a Pacer Runner?

What is a pacer runner?

Runners are nothing if not incredibly good at displaying their abilities, and pacers – specifically – are better than most. 

Pacers are experienced runners whose calves are pure steel and whose trails blaze with lightning and fury. They can run at a set pace for an extended period without slowing down or speeding up unless required. Often, this makes them the unsung heroes of the running world. Without pacers, some of the best athletes in the world may have never been able to set new records. 

Of course, pacers aren’t only used for achieving personal milestones. They are also essential for maintaining the flow of races.

There are three main types of pacers, each with their specific purpose and role within races. Knowing which is needed for a particular circumstance is crucial to the success of their performance.

Race Pacers

The role of a race pacer is equivalent to a police officer directing traffic. They run at a set pace throughout a race, often while carrying a sign or a flag or wearing a shirt that indicates their running pace. 

Race pacers are often organized into groups that run at different speeds. One group runs fast, and the other runs slightly slower. Occasionally, race pacers may even be asked to run split times – a predetermined time to complete a race section – to control the flow properly.

The purpose of these pacers is deeper than simply maintaining a certain flow and momentum. Their more important role is allowing the participants to judge their speed without relying on technology. In this way, pace runners are often a source of motivation which is especially important if you’re in the middle of a particularly grueling race. 

Distance Pacers

Of course, pacers are prevalent outside the confines of organized races. This is especially so when both marathons and ultramarathons exist. Marathons are races spanning up to 26.2 miles, while ultramarathons are races that exceed the maximum distance of a marathon. 

As you can imagine, participating in distance running can place an incredible strain on the body. Completing one, especially within a given time frame, is a feat on its own. By requiring runners that possess the ability to cover long distances, the need for distance runners is born. 

Professional distance pacers perform the same function as race pacers: they set the tempo and provide a visual indicator of the recommended speed. However, because ultramarathons are less populated than normal races and are more about endurance than speed, you may see fewer pacers. 

Additionally, because some of these Herculean challenges can stretch past 100 miles, different pacers will often be picked up throughout the trail, and they’re typically pacers for a specific runner.

Record Pacers

Record pacers are often called “rabbits.” This term originates from the idea that rabbits are excellent at maintaining quick speed, especially for their size. These pacers are required to be fast-footed, which earns them the appropriate moniker.

These speedy pacers are employed by professional athletes looking to break certain records to give the extra boost the runners require. Like other pacers, record pacers will lead races at a set speed. During a given race, you may see more than one depending on the length.

Due to their elite status, record pacers are not typically seen under normal race conditions. However, they’re incredibly popular in breaking running records despite being overshadowed by the participants. 

A pacer team at a London Marathon
A pacer team at the London Marathon, image courtesy of TCS London Marathon

How Can You Use a Pacer?

When making use of a pacer’s services, you should speak with them about your goals and how they may be able to assist you. As your performance may have plateaued, seeking their advice is a way to understand how to improve your abilities.

Tapping into a pacer’s knowledge and experience is an important tool that can aid you in seeing things from a different perspective. Once you have finalized all details of your desired goals and how to achieve them, you can finally lace up your shoes and practice.

You’ll want to run directly behind them at the predetermined pace. Depending on your personal goals, you can ask the pacer to speed up at a certain point in the race. For example, many pacers run negative splits, i.e., running faster during the latter half of the race. 

While the effects of using a pacer may not seem obvious at first, they’re immensely useful when it comes to improving your mental well-being during a race. It can be easier to follow than lead, and having someone in front of you to set the pace allows you to focus on your running and form alone. 

Of course, because pacers are sometimes much faster than the runners they assist, they aren’t always allowed in certain events. This is partly due to the strategy involved at the highest levels of world racing events. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see ‘unofficial’ pacers in the forms of teammates and fellow countrymen.

The act of taking the lead in a race makes you the unofficial pacer – whether you like it or not!

Pros of Pacers

If you’re not already convinced of the benefits of using a pacer when practicing for your next race, these factors may assist you in making a final decision.

Pacers Allow You to Avoid Running Too Fast

When you’re in the middle of a race, and the madness has started to set in, it may be tempting to bolt as fast and as hard as you can for fear of losing or even dropping in position. Not only is this a bad habit to fall into, but it’s also worse trying to break.

Luckily, pacers are well-accustomed to the typical pitfalls that haunt the minds of so many runners and thus can maintain a cool head. Having a pacer in front of you lets you focus on maintaining the pace rather than trying to exceed it.

Pacers Allow You to Maintain an Even Pace

When you’re in the middle of a marathon, it’s important to be consistent about your pace. Unfortunately, speeding up or slowing down can be tempting, especially if you’ve already been running for a few hours. 

As mentioned, however, pacers are a guiding presence, like having a knowledgeable friend that helps you progress. So long as you keep up with them, you never have to worry about whether or not you’re running fast enough. They’ll keep you stick to that trusty pace chart and come home in your desired finish time.

Pacers Provide Encouragement and Motivation

Lastly, pacers are exceptionally good at motivating you to keep up. Not only is their form envious, but they’re also scripted to encourage you when the going gets tough. And as anyone who’s run a marathon would know, the going will get tough – it doesn’t hurt to have someone along to share your pain. 

Cons of Pacers

Depending on their personality and performance, pacers can occasionally not suit runners. For starters, they aren’t recommended for amateur runners who may be unable to keep up with the pace the pacer sets. Moreover, running with a pacer can cause stress and anxiety in some people who may not be as confident in their abilities as they should be. 

Fortunately, working together with a pacer is optional. If you believe you can benefit more from solo training, do what makes you the most comfortable. This is especially true if you have previously attempted training with a pacer and the experience did not seem to fit.

Another problem at the elite end of the sport (that most of us are likely to encounter) is…

What if you can’t find a pacer fast enough to keep up with you?!

First world running problems for Eliud Kipchoge, indeed!

Our Verdict on Pacers: Unsung Heroes of the Racing World

Pacers are truly the unsung heroes of the running world, and we can’t help but appreciate their work. We appreciate all the pacers out there who continue assisting runners in elevating their performance, as well as the runners willing to put forth the time, effort, and hard work.

Of course, if you are interested in becoming a pacer, you can always reach out to your local running organization and volunteer. If you find the experience enjoyable, you might have found your calling. 

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

Revel SPorts Contributor

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