Learning consistent pacing can be a challenging task for first-time runners, and even advanced athletes. There are a few basic strategies you can use to dial in the appropriate pace for your workout distance, such as breathing and cadence.
Fine-tuning pace is a lifelong practice, and no one is absolutely perfect. Once you have developed a good sense of how different paces correspond to your overall effort, use these pacing strategies during workouts to improve race-day performance.
It is important to cultivate the intrinsic tools needed for proper pacing, rather than becoming a slave to the watch. Having a fitness tracker like a Garmin is a great resource, but it should not be the only one in your toolkit. Ken Presutti, a Pittsburgh-based Chi Running and triathlon coach, focuses on helping athletes find balance when it comes to pacing.
“There are so many factors that play into [pacing],” Presutti says. “For instance, the outside temperature, route elevation, mental state, etc.”
Developing the ability to understand how a specific effort level on any given day corresponds to pace is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn.
“With my athletes, even the advanced and crazy fast ones, we spend a lot of time building and tuning our aerobic engines,” says Presutti. “That means turning off the pace view on our watches, and focusing on how we feel or where our heart rates are.”
“That said, the easy work does have to be mixed in with the hard work. On those hard days, we traditionally look at setting pace targets and worry less about heart rate,” he says. “Moral of the story, easy days are based on heart rate and perceived exertion, and the hard days are based on pace.”
If you are a runner simply looking to build your fitness levels and extend the amount of time you can spend on the road, start with our How to Pace Your Run post to learn about the basics like breathing and cadence.
Once you have a good feel for what pace corresponds to roughly 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort, you have identified what is known as “aerobic base pace” or, in other words, the pace at which you can run comfortably for extended periods of time. At this point, start to experiment with different paces and effort levels to lay the groundwork for interval-based training.
Increase your pace for short periods of time (surges) or based off of physical landmarks (from here to the next street light). This is a good workout to start with. A Fartlek workout allows you to move out of your comfort zone for short periods of time in a controlled way.
Set aside the last portion of your run for a pace that is feasible, but ultimately unsustainable for your current level of fitness. A helpful analogy here is to “empty the gas tank.” If you did this in the middle of a run, it would be ineffective because you would have to stop or slow to a walk in order to recover. By placing this effort at the end of the workout, you can push yourself to a faster pace. By the time your body needs extra recovery, the workout is already over!
Intermediate-level runners can improve performance by instituting a variety of interval-based training runs. Intervals are short, hard efforts beyond your comfort level or degree of fitness. Intervals can be used to “raise the ceiling” on your existing thresholds. As opposed to steady-state cardio (which reflects the heart rate as a mildly undulating wave) interval-based training is a series of sharp “peaks'' followed by periods of low effort or “valleys.” The peaks are a short, predetermined distance or time of hard effort, while the valleys consist of an easy jog or brisk walk.
An easy way to perform interval-based training is by implementing a “work-to-rest ratio.” Based on your individual goals and current fitness level, the workout can be built around a 1:1 ratio all the way up to a 4:1 ratio. For example, if you are running a time-based interval workout of two-minute intervals a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio would give you a recovery period equal to the two-minutes of the interval. If you use a 2:1 ratio, the recovery would be one minute long, and if you use a 4:1 ratio the recovery would be 30 seconds.
This is a favorite pacing workout for intermediate-level runners. These are fun workouts that can help develop a fine-tuned sense for how specific efforts correspond to specific paces. A progression run is somewhat similar to the “fast-finish” workout for beginners, but in this case you will incrementally increase your pace throughout the entire workout. The best way to think about a progression run is to imagine you are simply “shifting gears” and building momentum from start to finish.
The best way to structure a progression run is to pick a time-based interval, and slightly increase the level of effort at each of these interval periods. For example, if you have an hour-long run planned, you can choose to increase effort level every five minutes (12 different “gears”) or every 10 minutes (6 different “gears”). It’s crucial to start these progression runs conservatively, to avoid burning out before the workout is over. A good rule of thumb is to start at about 50-60% of maximum effort, which often corresponds to 1-2 minutes slower than your aerobic base pace.
When you are comfortable with interval training, and extended periods of harder efforts, start to transition into more complex workout techniques to further improve fitness and performance. You will need to have a good sense of different effort levels, and be able to smoothly navigate between three to five different zones. You will want to understand how each zone corresponds to the rate of perceived exertion, breathing patterns and cadence.
These workouts can be very difficult to perform, but they are also a lot of fun! Choose a distance or time-based period to run at a hard, but sustainable, effort level. In order to get the most benefit from a CV workout, push the pace fast enough to be “comfortably uncomfortable” for the entire duration. The difference in pace between a hard, but sustainable effort and a “crash and burn” pace can be as little as five to ten seconds. The idea is to maintain a pace just slightly below this “tipping point.” You should feel your effort is difficult, but not impossible.
Another favorite of advanced runners, mixed long runs are exactly what they sound like, mingling different paces and efforts during different stages of the workout. A basic example of a mixed long run is one mile hard, followed by one mile easy. You can manipulate these sessions in a lot of different ways! One mile hard, one mile easy, two miles hard, one mile easy, three miles hard, one mile easy, etc. etc. Feel free to get creative with the mixed long run; it’s like having small workouts bundled into one big workout!
How you structure a mixed long run all depends on the ultimate goal race distance, goal finish time and how far away the event is.
“When you’re a long way out a very short recovery is fine, when you get closer to a big race it’s OK to make your recoveries a bit longer,” says Malcolm East, a coach and current FIT professional at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh.
East is a British-born, former elite distance runner with a personal best marathon time of 2:11:35. East has also won the Pittsburgh, Copenhagen and Columbus marathons, placed 5th in Boston and was the former British record holder for the 30K. He knows a bit about training at a high level.
“I like [mixed workouts] because for me personally it’s like racing,” says East. “It’s just like the ups and downs of a race, when things hit you in a race you’re prepared for it. There’s also the fun side of it, and it makes the time go quicker.”
Another good race-based training run is a mile or two of an easy warm-up, followed by a threshold (CV) effort. After the CV portion, fall back into your aerobic base pace for a period of time before closing out the workout with another CV effort and a relaxed cool-down. An example would be two miles easy to get loose, twenty minutes at threshold, ten miles at base pace, another twenty minutes at threshold with two miles easy to cool-down. The beauty of mixed long run workouts is the flexibility of mixing distance-based segments with time-based segments like the example just given.
It’s important for every runner to add some variety to their pacing if they want to improve racing performance or simply be sure their workouts remain effective. The body is a fascinating machine, and over time will learn how to perform a specific task in the most metabolically efficient way possible. This is why runners hit plateaus. You should introduce a new stimulus every so often to avoid the training plateau. Your body will respond well to controlled levels of good stress combined with the appropriate rest and recovery. Use these strategies, and you can be sure to get the most out of every run.
By Timothy Lyman. Timothy Lyman is the Head Coach and Director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise and a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.