Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 18 Dec 2002 09:15:43 -0500

Relaxing Pace


By pinning the title Long Slow Distance to my first book, I'm forever stuck with the honor and burden of being Mr. LSD. Looking back more than 30 years on that little book, I see that it contains a good idea under a flawed name.

The title was more attention-grabbing than accurate. It seemed to promote running the slowest possible pace. I never wrote that, nor did any of the other five profiled runners say it.

"Slow" was a misleading and somewhat negative word. A better one would have been "easy," "gentle," "comfortable" or "relaxed."

At first I thought that LSD was a training method. It turned out to be a relaxation system.

My race times improved on this system compared to what I'd run while speeding almost daily. This wasn't because I'd found any magical new ingredients, but because for the first time in years I relaxed, recovered and rebuilt between the races.

Relaxing meant setting no time goals on most runs, checking no splits, accepting whatever pace the day's feelings and conditions allowed. I relaxed into trusting the body to know best and letting it find the right pace.

By putting instinct in charge, my normal pace -- my comfort zone -- became one to two minutes per mile slower than my current racing rate for that same distance. My runs back then averaged about 10K a day, and my pace 7:30 per mile. Raceday pace for similar distances dropped as low as 5:30, and 6:30 for marathons.

Today, more than three decades further along, I can't race any distance as fast as my slowest training once was. But the plus-one to plus-two gap between relaxed pace and racing pace remains constant.

This isn't just my gap. It works for other, faster runners as well.

I once surveyed elite runners for the book Road Racers and Their Training (1995). Their usual pace, such as sub-six-minute miles, might appear otherworldly to us.

But look into the gap for a true picture of relative effort. On easier or longer days they typically trained a minute or more per mile slower than they raced.

ONE OF THE most basic tenets of training is a hard one to sell to ambitious, impatient runners. It's that you must run less than your best most of the time.

Put another way, you can't go all-out all the time. Maximum efforts are prescription items, best taken in small and well-spaced doses.

Put yet another way, you must pace yourself. Find what your limits are in races, then back away from them on all but a few of your runs.

The hardest runs are challenging and exciting, but also temporarily damaging. The easier ones repair the damage and bring you back stronger for the next challenge.

The trick is knowing how much to relax your pace. What is slow enough to go day after day but not too slow to give a training benefit? Where is your building zone, your comfort zone?

The modern way of gauging effort is to monitor your heart rate, running at a certain percentage of maximum. I can't quote an exact figure because I'm one of the many runners who haven't bought into the new technology.

Heart-rate monitors are reliable measures of effort, to be sure, but they aren't essential tools. There are lower-tech ways to check and adjust your pace.

The time-tested method is to drive your training routes in a car, stepping out to mark the mile points. Since cars can't cut corners as runners do, these measurements almost invariably lead to short "miles" and exaggerated pace.

Other downsides to this system: It focuses you more on the watch's split-readings than on how you feel. And it tempts you to race your training-route records.

There's a simpler way to settle into a pace that's right for you. It works just as well as wearing a heart monitor or timing every mile -- and sometimes better.

Relax and let whatever happens, happen. Take your pace less seriously in one of these two ways.

1. Run by time periods while leaving distances unchecked. An hour can't be made to pass any faster than 60 minutes, so nothing is gained by hurrying.

2. Run known distances while leaving the watch at home. Timeless running removes the temptation to "race" the easier training.

Either way, don't force a pace onto your run. Let the right pace for the day, and the moment, automatically find itself.

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