Is using a pacer in races cheating or a useful way of achieving a PB? We look into the runABC archive from 2016 and recollect the conversation between two high-profile runners with differing views on the subject…
Dan Afshar In the pro-pacers corner - Dan Afshar from Xempo Race Pacing (racepacing.com). Xempo Race Pacing is a pacing service that has helped over a thousand runners achieve their goals.
Joanna Barlow In the no-pacers corner - Joanna Barlow, the popular blogger at teacupsandtrainers.com. Joanna has been one of runABC's top columnists over the last year. It was her post on ‘Is being paced to a PB cheating?’ that prompted us to set up this debate.
Joanna, do you really think using a pacer is tantamount to cheating?
JB: I think ‘cheating’ is a bit strong - after all, it certainly isn’t comparable to taking performance-enhancing drugs, and your body is still doing the work - but I do feel that I would be cheating myself by using a pacer to achieve a PB.
Dan, do you think using a pacer is less of a mental challenge?
DA: Possibly, but do you really care if you’ve got a chance to break a PB? You’ve still got to run the same distance of course, so there’s no question of you gaining an unfair advantage. Pacers have been used throughout the history of running, from Roger Bannister to Paula Radcliffe. And if it’s good enough for them...
Joanna, what advantages are there from not using a pacer?
JB: I am a bit (a lot) of a show off, and I love to brag about my achievements, so by handing some of the control and responsibility over to someone else and effectively giving them a contributor credit, I feel like I would be diminishing my moment. A PB is something personal to me, and means so much more than just a time on a watch.
Dan, what advantages are there from using a pacer?
DA: There are so many things to think about when running a race. Working out pace and splits (even if you are using a GPS device) takes up mental energy that is best left to someone else. Running in a group is also less demanding and it helps to let someone else take the effort and pressure of getting the right pace, while you slot in behind and take a free ride. Slower runners and beginners may find it particularly beneficial to use a pacer as they might not yet have the experience of knowing how far or fast they can sustain a certain pace throughout a race.
Is a PB achieved with a pacer less impressive than one without one?
JB: For me - yes. Don’t get me wrong, I would still be impressed by a friend who achieved a paced PB - my feelings towards this are very much personal, and based on my sense of pride of own achievements. I know that if I had a pacer-assisted PB I wouldn’t be as proud of it as if I had achieved it myself.
DA: I don’t think so. It’s possibly harder to run a PB solo, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more or less impressive. There are no footnotes in the race results to say whether you ran with a pacer or not.
Joanna, do you understand why some runners use a pacer?
JB: Yes. I absolutely think that pacers have a place - for both novice and experienced runners, and I’m certainly not going to knock anyone who uses one to achieve a goal. I’ve seen runners full of joy after achieving a PB with the help of pacers - and I would never want to diminish that. I’m sure that the confidence gained from achieving a goal with a pacer could lead to further goals being achieved - with or without a pacer!
Dan, do you understand why some runners don’t use a pacer?
DA: Absolutely. Sometimes following a pacer might restrict you, as you may have been capable of running even faster on the day. But if you are one of those runners who struggles to run an even pace, or sets off too fast (and let’s be honest, that’s most of us), then using a pacer is a great way of ensuring you run at a sensible rate.
Joanna, would you ever use a pacer?
JB: Never say never! If I’ve tried everything to achieve a certain target - and failed, then I might turn to a pacer for help. I know I would never be fully satisfied until I had achieved it by myself though!
Dan, would you ever not use a pacer?
DA: There tend not to be too many pacers at the quicker end of many races, but I owe my first 2h45 marathon to following a big pace group up until halfway keeping me in check, before pushing on ahead when I felt I could go it alone. Using a pacer isn’t compulsory of course, but it’s a great way of keeping yourself under control in the early stages of a race.