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

Fri, 22 Jun 2007 04:27:43 -0400

Acing the Pacing


(rerun from June 2003 RW)

One of the most basic tenets of running 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.

Assuming you accept this premise, the trick is knowing how much less than your best to run most of the time. What pace is easy enough to hold day after day but not too easy to give a training benefit? Where is your building zone, your comfort zone?

The modern way measure effort is to monitor your heart rate, running at a certain percentage of maximum. The time-tested method is to drive your training routes in a car, stepping out to mark the mile points.

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. That's to relax during most runs and just let whatever happens to the pace, happen.

This was the guiding principle in my first book. Its title, Long Slow Distance, seemed to promote running the slowest possible pace, which wasn't at all my intention (or my practice). A better word than "slow" would have been "relaxed."

Relaxing meant setting no time goals on most runs, checking no splits, accepting whatever pace the day's feelings and conditions allowed. My comfort zone settled at one to two minutes per mile (or about one minute per kilometer) slower than my current racing rate for that same distance.

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.

How to relax and let body wisdom find the right pace for the day? Run by time periods while leaving distances unchecked, or run known distances but to leave the watch at home. Either way protects you from racing yourself in training.

A compromise between those two approaches allows both a known distance and a watch. But to keep the pressure off, you take no splits and keep no training-course records.

Students in the beginning-racing classes I teach follow that path. At their age and stage of running it's hard to sell them on listening to their body instead of the watch.

They want to know "how fast?" and many of them (males, especially) want to race every longer and "easier" run. To control this youthful tendency while still giving numerical answers, they receive only final times and per-mile averages. Their en-route distances aren't marked, and they don't run they don't run any course twice during a term.

High speed and hard effort go unrewarded after these runs. To reinforce the idea of NOT pushing limits here, I give a daily "Pace Ace" award for the runner who comes closest to his or her target time.

That target is one minute per mile slower than current 5K race pace. It's an easy figure to remember and calculate, and I'm happy if they agree to back off their race pace even that much.

Another hard sell to runners this age is the concept that pace means more than per-mile averages on today's run. It also means pacing from one day to the next and the next and...

Some students complain that the runs I give them feel "too easy." I try to tell them that one run doesn't stand alone. Then I ask, Could you come back tomorrow and run this same one again? Could you run this way three to six days a week, month after month, for years on end, and never tire of it?

A view of pace that takes you through one run also gets you through dozens or hundreds or thousands of runs. Doing less than your best most of the time keeps you coming back for more.

Previous Posts