What Is a Pacer?

legs only of runners in a road race

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Running is a sport that many people participate in and doesn’t require any equipment—just a good pair of running shoes. Some runners enjoy running in races and marathons, but are looking for ways to perfect their racing abilities, become more consistent, finish a race in a certain time, or hit a personal record. In these situations, they may choose to run with a pacer.

A pacer is an experienced runner who is able to run at a set pace for a long duration of time and sets the speed so the runner can focus on running. There are different reasons why both professional and amateur runners will choose to run with a pacer. If you are considering getting a pacer, or even considering becoming a pacer yourself, here is what you need know including the benefits and the drawbacks. 

What Is a Pacer?

A pacer is someone who runs in races or marathons to help set the pace for a runner or runners. With professional runners, they are often used to help set a new personal or world record. In short, a pacer is a runner who helps another runner set a certain pace, says John Honerkamp, founder and chief executive officer of Run Kamp and J.R. Honerkamp Consulting, LLC. 

”Typically a runner who paces other runners or paces at a certain pace is called a pacer or is a member of the Pace Team,” says Honerkamp.

There are three typical types of pacers. Here's what you need to know about each.

Race Pacer

 A race pacer is someone who usually carries a sign highlighting a specific competition time for a race and often can run split times. A split time is the amount of time it takes to run a certain distance. Many marathons will have pace groups that run at a specific speed or pace throughout the duration of the race.

“The pace groups will have runners who will run a set time so other runners can key off these runners,” says Honerkamp. “For a marathon, you will typically see paces for a 3:00 marathon time all the way up to a 6:00 marathon time.”

Runners can use these pacers to help them reach their goals without having to rely on technology, such as a smart watch or GPS to figure out if they are maintaining the correct speed throughout the duration of the race. To make it easier for the runners, pacers wear or carry a sign.

“These pacers will often have a sign that they hold with the pace they are trying to run,” says Honerkamp. “Typically, these pacers will run at an even pace.”

Professional Distance Pacer

Professional and non-professional runners who run long distances or ultramarathons may also use a pacer to set a specific tempo to run the race. Ultramarathons are any race that has a distance longer than the standard marathon of 26.2 miles.

“[Regardless of the race] all pacers do basically the same thing—they set the pace,” says Honerkamp.

Because some ultramarathons can be as long as 50 miles to 100 miles, runners who choose to have a pacer will often have several pacers at different sections of the race to motivate them and help set the rhythm.  

Record Pacer or “Rabbit”

A record pacer, also known as a rabbit, is a pacer who helps a professional runner set a new record. A rabbit often leads the race for a predetermined distance at a predetermined pace, Honerkamp explains. Some races will even have multiple pacers.

“You will see a professional rabbit or pace setter in elite races on the track and on the roads typically when a World Record, American Record, or Olympic Time Qualifier for Olympic Time Qualifier Standard is needed,” says Honerkamp. 

How Do You Use a Pacer?

There are different reasons why a person may want to have a pacer in a race. But primarily the runner's goals will influence how they use a pacer.

“A runner being paced runs directly behind a pacer(s),” says Honerkamp. “A pacer can run any pace that is requested, but typically the pace groups will run an even pace or a slight negative split.” 

A negative split is when a runner runs the second part of the race faster than the first half. Having a pacer can be helpful for a runner because it takes more energy to lead a race than to sit back and follow another runner, Honerkamp says. The pacer takes on the responsibility of timing and establishing the tempo so the runner only has to focus on running.

“A pacer does more work in setting the pace and this allows the runner being paced to relax and not stress as much on trying to hit the pace,” he says.  

One study focused on elite athletes who used pacers and how their behavior changed based on the length of a race and whether it was a championship event or a practice race. The study found that running together with a realistic speed helped optimize and achieve finishing time goals.

It is important to note, however, that not all elite events will allow pacers to participate. Some championship events—which includes the Olympics, World Championships, National Champs, NCAA Champs—do not let in pacers, explains Honerkamp.

Benefits of a Pacer

Although many professional runners use pacers to set personal records and world records, there are other benefits in running with a pacer. Here are some ways you might benefit from using a pacer.

Avoiding Running Too Fast

When a race begins, it can be easy for a runner to be excited and full of energy and start off too fast. But starting too quickly can have negative consequences during the race especially if they lose energy and stamina to reach the finish line at their desired time.

A pacer can help them start the race off well with a steady pace. They also can keep them from going out too fast or expending too much energy in the beginning.

Having an Even Pace 

Maintaining an even pace can be difficult throughout a long race like a 10K or a marathon. Having a pacer as a guide can take some of the stress and pressure off.

“A pacer can keep you on an even pace or negative splits versus going out too fast and fading,” says Honerkamp.

Focusing on the Race 

Another benefit of a pacer is to help the runner focus on the race without having to think about how they are running and if they are maintaining the right speed to achieve their goal time.

“A pacer can help relax you as well as keep you focused,” says Honerkamp. 

Finding Motivation

Sometimes running with a pacer or a pace group can be motivating for a runner. The people doing the pacing may provide encouragement along the way and help you stay motivated to keep working toward your goal—even when it starts to get challenging.

Drawbacks of Having a Pacer

There are times, though, when running with a pacer can be more stressful than beneficial for a runner—especially for amateur runners. This can be particularly true if you set a goal to run a particular pace throughout the race, but then realize this may not be the best speed for you.

“A pacer or pace group can be helpful, but it also can create more stress for some amateur runners,” says Honerkamp. 

In some cases, you might realize the pacer is running too quickly for what you can handle. Or, you may be filled anxiety that you might not be able to keep up. Other times, you could underestimate your abilities and run a slower pace than what your body can handle.

While running with a pacer can be a challenge at times, it is important to note that you don't have to stay with a pace group just because you started with them. If you feel strong at the end and want to finish faster, you can run ahead. Or if the group is too fast, you could slow down and maybe even join the slower pace group behind you. The key is to listen to your body and do what feels right for you.

How Do You Become a Pacer?

A pacer needs to be able to run at the same speed for a long duration. An experienced runner who wants to be a pacer for a race can reach out to a running organization about possibilities to pace.

“Most pacers will contact the race organization to apply for a certain pace,” says Honerkamp. “I started pacing celebrities because I am a coach and the celebrities wanted some help. On the elite side where world records are looking to be set, you will need very fast runners who are often professional runners themselves. They are [often] getting paid and/or helping out a teammate.” 

Some pacers enjoy the thrill of running in a race and helping other runners meet their goals. The goals of the runner and type of event will also influence who the pacer is.

Keep in mind, though, not everyone is cut out to be a pacer. You need to be able to have consistent racing times and be able to  run a set speed for a long duration. Many pacers get satisfaction in being able to run even splits. 

“Pacers are not looking to run their best time and this way their race has a bigger purpose than just getting a medal,” explains Honerkamp. “There is also a pacer pride factor of running even splits in hitting their prescribed goal time.” 

A Word From Verywell 

Running a race comes with many physical and mental challenges. A pacer can help a runner have one less thing to worry about by setting the speed so the runner can concentrate on other things like their breathing, their form, or their mental toughness.

While pacers serve a variety of purposes—including motivating a runner—they are often used when runners want to set personal records or world records. If you are interesting in working with a pacer, it may help to talk to local running experts or a hire a running coach.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do runners use pacers?

    Runners use pacers for different reasons. Pacers are typically used to help set new world records or personal records. A pacer also can help a runner maintain their speed throughout a race or a marathon. 

  • Should you use a pacer for running?

    Choosing to have a pacer will depend you and your goals. According to some running coaches, a pacer is usually helpful for setting a running pace, and can help with setting personal and world records. However, for some individuals, a pacer can be overwhelming and stressful. Deciding if a pacer is right for you will be a matter of personal preference.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Casado A, Hanley B, Jiménez-Reyes P, Renfree A. Pacing profiles and tactical behaviors of elite runners. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2021;10(5):537-549. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2020.06.011

Additional Reading

By Lauren David
Lauren David is a Chilean-American Freelance writer. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Greatist, The Healthy, The Kitchn, Mindbodygreen, Reader's Digest, and more.