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Marathon Pacers Explained: The Pros And Cons Of Running With A Pacer

We help you decide if using a pacer is a good decision for your next marathon.

If you’ve ever run a large half-marathon or marathon, you might have noticed runners decked out in official kits and carrying signs with different projected finish times on them.

You might see a crowd of fellow racers milling about in the general vicinity of the sign holder at the start line while waiting for the race to begin and cavorting together once the race gets underway.

So, what’s with the sign holder and all the hubbub surrounding them?

Welcome to the world of pacers. 

In this guide, we will discuss what marathon pacers do, the pros and cons of following a pacer at a marathon, and tips on how best to use them to achieve your race goals.

A race crew member at a marathon.

What Is a Pacer?

A pacer is an experienced runner who is tasked with the role of running at a set speed in a race for a certain projected finish time, helping participants stick to their goal pace.

For example, a smaller marathon might have pacers for the following finish times: 3:00, 3:15, 3:30, 3:45, 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, and so on until 5:30.

A larger marathon might have lace groups every 5 minutes and extend further in each direction with faster and slower projected finish times. You can inquire at the race expo or check the FAQ section of your marathon to figure out what will be available for your race.

Official pacers are appointed by the race organizers, usually as volunteers, and are typically assigned a target finish time that’s well within their means and slower than their PR.

This ensures that the pacer can comfortably maintain the assigned pace with plenty of spare energy to enthusiastically encourage the runners who choose to run in their pace group.

For example, a marathon pacer leading the 4:00 group might have a marathon PR of 3:30.

Most large marathons and half marathons have quite a few pacers, each leading a different pace group.

However, very large marathons, such as the New York City Marathon, Chicago Marathon, or Boston Marathon might have two, three, or even four pacers or more for popular pace groups like 3:30 and 3:45.

That way, if the group is large, there is more support for each runner, and if one of the pacers runs into their own issue during the race, there are still other pacers to continue on with the correct pace and lead the group to the finish.

A marathon pacer high-fiving a runner.

What Is The Purpose of Marathon Pacers?

So, what do marathon pacers do? 

At the most basic level, marathon pacers set the pace in a race so that runners don’t have to think about running the right pace or maintaining even splits; all they have to do is shut their brains off and stick with the pacer.

The runners that run along with the pacer are often called a pace team or pace group.

For example, if you are trying to run a 3:35 marathon, you might join the 3:35 pace team at the start of the race.

Joining a “pace team” and running with a marathon pacer or pacer in a shorter-distance race has several potential benefits.

A group of people, hands in a huddle.

What Are The Benefits Of Running With Pacers?

#1: Take Out the Guesswork 

The primary reason runners choose to run with pacers is that it’s often a better insurance policy for running an even-split race and at the speed they need to maintain to hit their goal time.

Marathon race pacers are experienced runners who are skilled at finding the right pace and then settling into it, running consistently at a steady pace for the duration of the race.

In contrast, many first-time marathoners, or even experienced runners who get anxious on race day, tend to go out way too fast in longer races, only to crash in the later miles.

This can lead them to fall short of their running goals.

Running with a pacesetter takes the guesswork out of the equation, allowing you to turn off your brain and not have to focus on your watch. The pacer is entirely focused on getting you to maintain the right splits to get you to the finish line at the posted time.

Marathon pacers were particularly useful before GPS running watches became mainstream since they now allow instantaneous data about your marathon pace.

However, even with the ubiquity of GPS watches, running with a pacer is still a good way to take the pacing brainwork out of the equation of the challenges you have to juggle during the marathon, freeing up mental energy to focus on running well.

Marathon runners.

#2: Provide Support

Marathon pacers do more than just hold the pace group to the correct running speed.

They also provide moral support and encouragement, chatting with, cheering for, and distracting their pace group to help them through the race.

Running with a pacer often gives runners the boost of motivation to stay positive and mentally engaged in the race, especially when negative self-talk and moments of defeat strike.

#3: Help Runners Get PRs

Running with a pacer can be a good way to reach a PR. 

Marathon pacers typically run even splits. This pacing strategy is particularly effective at achieving a fast finish time, but it can be very challenging to implement on your own.

If you go out too fast, you can run out of steam and really slow down in the second half of the race.

Similarly, if you set out to run negative splits (a slower first half and a faster second half), it can be hard to pick up the pace at the halfway point because you’re likely already feeling fairly tired at the pace you are running.

People running a marathon.

#4: Answering Questions

Marathon pacers are experienced runners and usually also familiar with the course you are running, so they can be great resources for information about the race.

For example, they might be able to tell you that there’s a large hill coming up or that all the rest of the miles are flat or somewhat downhill.

This information can help you budget your energy and mentally prepare for what’s to come.

#5: Clearing the Way

If you’re running a crowded marathon, running with a pacer can be a good way to avoid weaving in and out of other runners and fighting your way through throngs of competitors.

Generally speaking, marathon pacers command the group from the front, asking other runners on the course to move to one side of the road or the other (as they continue running) to clear room for the coming pace group.

In this way, the other runners in the race yield to the pace group, saving you from weaving in and out of runners randomly strewn about the course who are paying no attention to you and the shortest tangents you want to be running.

A group of people running a marathon.

Tips For Running With a Pacer

The following are tips for running with a marathon pacer:

  • Introduce yourself and share your marathon goals, concerns, and questions.
  • Check your watch for the first few miles to ensure you’re running at the right pace.
  • Feel free to break away from the group of runners if it’s not working for you.
  • Thank your pacer.

Should You Use a Marathon Pacer?

Many runners really enjoy running with a pacer and find that it helps them have a more successful and enjoyable race. However, not every runner is well suited to running with a pacer.

If you thrive on running in a group or team, a pace group can provide the social support and camaraderie you crave, but if you like to run your own race and don’t particularly like being in a group setting, you might prefer pacing the race yourself.

Beginners or those running their first marathon also often excel with a pacer because they usually need more help running a smart race in terms of pacing.

Running with a pacer has many benefits, including removing the stress of trying to run at the right pace, having social support and encouragement, and running with a group that shares a common goal.

One drawback of running with a pacer is that they might not have the exact finish time that matches your goal, forcing you to run at a faster or slower pace than you want to.

For example, if you want to run 3:25, but there are only options for a 3:15 or 3:30 group, you’ll either be running much too fast (and will likely tire out) or will have to eventually break away from the group and try to make up time, which can be super hard when you’re already tired in a race.

A marathon crossing a bridge.

Another drawback of using a marathon pacer is that there are no guarantees.

Although you can put your trust in the pacer that you’ll run the right splits and hit the right finish time, even experienced pacers are human and they might not end up running a very even race.

Finally, you don’t get to run your own race with a pacer. You might want to run a 4:00 marathon but prefer to start slow and pick up the pace. You may want to make a water stop at one of the water stations that a pacer will not slow down for.

The pace team will be led the way the pacer chooses—often even splits—so this may not be your preferred pacing strategy.

Deciding whether to use a pacer is a personal decision, but the good news is that it’s free and non-binding—you can always disassociate from the group even if you’ve started with them.

It’s your race. Marathon pacers are there as a tool to help you; you owe them nothing, and they owe you nothing.

You can use the service with gratitude to choose to do your own thing; both are totally valid choices.

Looking to improve your marathon PR? Take a look at our marathon distance training resources to help get you there!

Marathon runners.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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