How pacing can help to boost your results

Sometimes we can all go a bit too hard, too soon. We feel good, so we up the intensity and then end up paying for it later. This can be especially true for those living with chronic conditions or persistent pain. We asked Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Sarah Comensoli, to explain how pacing can help you to get better results, improve your energy levels and get more out of life. 

Have you ever pulled up sore after too much time in the garden? Or perhaps you ended up extending your walk by quite a bit due to the glorious, only to feel worse for it afterwards? Or maybe you’re trying to build up your fitness, only to feel tired and lethargic as you try to push yourself?

If any of the above relate to you or someone you know, then get excited! I’m about to share with you what I feel is one of the most underutilised strategies out there which can help keep you safe, injury free and in better control of your energy levels. Pacing…

So, what is pacing?

In a nutshell, pacing is an approach to helping you gradually increase your tissue tolerance. If done well, it can help you build fitness, reduce your risk of injury and gain better control of your energy levels.

Pacing involves a pre-planned strategy allowing for successful energy management, with the aim of maximising activity whilst avoiding setbacks due to over-exertion.

How can pacing help you?

If you have a rheumatic disease or are recovering from a soft tissue injury, it’s common to reduce the amount of exercise that you’re doing. When you’re sore, or fatigued, you might look for ways to reduce your exercise duration or intensity and take it easy.

Often, this is a good thing to do. It can help settle inflammation and assist your body in making a good recovery. However, if this constant boom and bust cycle becomes an ongoing behaviour pattern, then it can be less helpful for your body.

Pacing is a strategy that helps you understand your body and make smart choices when it comes to what you do and choose not to do. It can help immensely in terms of avoiding downward spirals of activity and pain.

The below graphic helps to represent what many of my patients have been through in the past. Pacing is a strategy which can help prevent this vicious cycle!

pain and pacing

How to implement pacing

If you’re interested implementing some good pacing strategies to help you manage your energy levels, see my main principles below. We need to go through each of these steps to get the best impact, so stay with me!

1. Goal Setting

What is it that you want to do more of? Or what is it that you are hoping to better monitor? It helps if this is something meaningful to you. If your answer is “EVERYTHING”, then we need to break that down into some smaller chunks and then prioritise them.

Read more: Too hard, too soon – When more exercise isn’t better


2. Measuring and Recording

This bit involves a bit of work! You need to be honest about how much you’re actually doing. The use of activity trackers (like Fitbits) can help immensely during this phase, but so will a simple activity diary. The more detail you record, the better. This will hopefully give you and your health care provider a good idea of your daily routines and what patterns exist in your activity levels. It’s up to you whether you record just the one activity (for example gardening) or whether you fill out things in more detail to get a more holistic view.

3. Set a baseline

Once you have your activity data, you can hopefully see how your body responds to certain levels of activity. If you notice that 90 minutes of gardening regularly contributes to you feeling wiped out afterwards, then your baseline activity level will need to be LESS than this. If you’re unsure, start low! Here are some examples of some baseline activity levels I have used in the past with different clients.

  • 9 holes of golf (instead of 18)
  • Cleaning 1 room in the house (instead of trying to do 4 – 5 rooms in one go)
  • Walking 20 minutes on flat ground
  • Trialling 30 minutes of yoga at home (instead of doing a 90 minute session)
4. The 10% rule

This is how we get your tissue tolerance increasing again. It’s important to make small, regular increments to your chosen activity!

Although it takes patience and awareness, small progressions allow for your body to adapt appropriately to greater activity levels. So, if you know that 60 minutes of gardening is manageable, you might try to do 65-70 minutes for a few sessions before trialling a larger increase. The hardest thing about managing this step is the patience required! It takes time but rest assured that this is how our tissues best like to be loaded. Small and steady increases over time (as opposed to big peaks and troughs) is the way to go.

Getting individualised advice

Now, this blog is by no means a solution for all individuals! The best pacing plans are individualised and take into consideration important factors like sleep, stress levels and your specific injury/condition. To get some advice, talk to your local exercise physiologist. To find one near you, click here.

In the meantime, happy pacing and happy training!

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Written by Sarah Comensoli. Sarah is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at BJC Health.