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

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

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

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 and tips for using marathon pacers.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Pacer?
  • The Purpose of Marathon Pacers
  • Tips For Using a Marathon Pacer
  • Should You Use a Marathon Pacer? Pros and Cons of Running With a Pacer

Let’s jump in!

A race crew member at a marathon.

What Is a Pacer?

A pacer is an experienced runner tasked with the role of running at a set speed in a race for a certain projected finish time.

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 or so.

A larger marathon might have lace groups every 5 minutes and extend further in each direction with faster and slower projected finish times.

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

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

For example, a marathon pacer who is 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, though very large marathons, such as the New York City Marathon or Chicago 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.

The Purpose of Marathon Pacers

So, what do marathon pacers do? 

At the most basic level, marathon pacers are there to 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 brain off and stick with the pacer.

The group of runners that run along with the pacer are often referred to as 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.

There are several potential benefits of joining a “pace team” and running with a marathon pacer or pacer in a shorter distance race.

Benefits Of Running With Pacers

A group of people, hands in a huddle.

#1: Taking Out the Guesswork 

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

Marathon pacers are experienced runners who are skilled in being able to find the right pace and then settle into it, running consistently with even pacing 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 race goals.

Running with a pacer takes the guesswork out of the equation and allows 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 for instantaneous data about your 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: Providing 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, and distracting their pace group to help them along through the race.

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

#3: Helping 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 running a fast finish time, but it can be very hard to do 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 actually pick up the pace at the halfway point because you’re likely to already feel 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 of 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 type of 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 having to weave in and out other runners and fight your way through throngs of other competitors.

Generally speaking, marathon pacers sort of command the group from the front, asking other runners on the course to kindly 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 sort of 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 goals, concerns, and questions.
  • Check your watch the first few miles to make sure you’re running at the right pace.
  • Feel free to break away from the group if it’s not working for you.
  • Thank your pacer.

Should You Use a Marathon Pacer? Pros and Cons of Running With a 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.

A marathon crossing a bridge.

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 also often excel with a pacer because they usually need more help running a smart race in terms of pacing.

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

One of the drawbacks of running with a pacer is that they might not have the exact finish time in line with your goal, forcing you to run slower or faster 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 sea of marathon runners.

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.

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 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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