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

Sun, 23 Apr 2006 05:52:02 -0400

Setting the Pace


Another reason I love teaching and coaching runners is that each new group asks me to prove myself all over again. They don't know me or my methods. I need to show them that spending the next three to four months on the scheduled training will be worth their while.

We'd barely started a new term in my 10K training class at University of Oregon when a young runner we'll call Dan questioned me on pacing. He couldn't, or wouldn't, slow down to the pace I'd suggested for his long runs. I need such challenges every few months to brush up on my sales pitches.

"I have not been hitting my target times, because frankly they seem too slow," Dan said. He wasn't rebelling or debating, just wanting an answer. "Explain to me why is it beneficial to run slower for the longer runs rather than coming close to race pace. I thought if you trained slow, you raced slow."

Runners like Dan make me think before answering them. They won't accept "because I know so and say so" as an answer. Neither is "this is what I've always done and what hundreds of students before you have done."

He didn't want to know that others had routinely raced one or more minutes per mile faster than most of than training miles. He wanted to know why my way might be better than the one he'd thought was right.

I told him that if you're an experienced runner, already routinely exceeding the distances run in class (at that time, four to five miles), fine. Go ahead and run them faster than the target.

Take this as a tempo run, at pace of a race at least twice this long. But run this hard only one or two days a week.

Even the most skilled runners need to back off their best pace most days, saving themselves for the occasional day when they're supposed to go fast. The many easier runs let the few harder ones go better.

I told student Dan, "Almost no one, even the very best athletes, can run at or near maximum effort day after day. Even they must run less than their best most of the time."

How much less? About a minute per mile slower than you could race a comparable distance.

Dan was about a 40-minute 10K runner when our class began. That's 6:30 mile pace, and he took our early runs within 10 seconds of that. No wonder he balked when I targeted him at 7-1/2's.

In fact, I warn students not to obsess over splits. Miles aren't marked during their longer runs, so they can't check themselves along the way.

Instead I tell them to relax and let whatever happens, happen with their pace. Run what feels right, neither too fast nor too slow, and it probably is right. Run at a pace that they feel they could have held longer.

Once a relaxed training pace finds itself, let it guide the speed of the faster runs. We take those once a week in Dan's 10K training class. On this day he's free to go as fast as he can.

In class after class the results are the same. Each group averages a minute a mile faster on tempo runs (of about half their racing distance) than on the longer, relaxed ones. They run up to TWO minutes faster on interval days.

This class introduces the students to training that I call "overs and unders" -- over the race distance (we peak at eight miles in this 10K class) but at a slower pace, and under the race distance at race pace or faster. Full distance at full pace comes only on race day, when it counts.

Approaching the race from both directions helps a runner improve. If Dan doesn't think this can happen with the training I assign, he might talk with a student named Renee from the previous term.

Renee isn't new to running and racing. She decided after running two marathons last fall and winter that her speed needed work.

She followed the scheduled training in class, slowing and speeding up as assigned. In her "final exam," the term-ending 10K race, she scored a 3-1/2-minute PR.

(This piece happens to have been written on the 39th anniversary of my first, and fastest-ever, marathon. At Boston that year I averaged more than a minute per mile faster than my longest training runs. This experience shaped much of the advice in later writings and teachings.)
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