What’s the right pace?

Training regularly and efficiently is very important in (endurance) training.

A well-known mistake is training too hard, too fast, too much or too frequently. This happens not only to the amateur recreational runner, but also to elite world-class marathon runners.

Training at the right pace is one thing that can help you avoid getting injured or feeling overly fatigued.  Why?  Run too fast and you risk not being recovered for your next run.  And when you’re not completely recovered, that’s when overuse injuries begin (those little injuries develop over time, but seem to just appear suddenly).   Not being fully recovered for your next run will also cause you to feel more tired during, and even after your next run.

Pace or speed?

As runners, we speak of “pace” more often than we speak of “speed.”

They are pretty much alike, but here’s the difference:

  • With speed, we relate a distance to time: a 12 km/hr speed means that one covered a distance of 12 km in one hour.
  • With pace, we relate time to distance: a 5’00”/km pace means that one needed 5 minutes to cover one kilometer.

Since most running events are based on covering a distance (10 km, 10 miles, Half or Full Marathon) rather than an amount of time (24-hour Ultra run), we tend to measure our performance to what we did per kilometer (pace). If you ran a 10K run in 50’, you’ll probably find it easier to determine that you ran at a 5’00”/km pace than to calculate that you ran with a 12 km/hr speed.

What pace?

In schedules, programs, and tables (such as this one), you’ll often see several types of pace being mentioned.

At House of Running, we mostly speak of three of them in our training: your “race pace,” and two different training paces, the “easy run”pace  and the “tempo run” pace.

Race Pace

Your race pace is the average pace you ran at a race where you did the best you could — also known as your Personal Best (PB).

If you have done a few 10K races and you managed to finish one in 50’30” and even one in 49’45”, you could safely consider 5’00”/km as your race pace on a 10K. This stat is stronger when your performance is from a recent date than when you ran a personal best in the stone ages…

If you have run races over several distances, you will find that the average race pace is likely to be a tad slower when the race distance is longer: your race pace on your 10K race will be quicker than your race pace on your Half Marathon. If not, there is plenty of room for improvement on your 10K!

If you’ve never run a race, then the best way to determine your race pace to calculate the pace of a recent run where you gave a good effort, a 3 – 5 km run for example.

Training Pace – Easy Run & Long Run

Your training pace on an easy run is a comfortable, conversational pace. It’s also the same pace you’d use on your long runs.

Easy runs are fundamental for your long distance preparations.

The most popular method to find your ideal easy-run pace is to add about 10% to your race pace. (Or you can use this chart here.)  Training for a Half Marathon in 2:00’, you require a 5’40”/km race pace on race day. If you add 10% to that race pace (that would be 34”), your easy-run pace in this example would be around 6’15”/km. So if you do your easy runs at a pace somewhere between 6’10”/km and 6’20”/km, you will be fine.

The other way round: if you are doing your long runs quite comfortably in a 6’00”/km pace all the way up to the 28, 30, 32K training runs without fading in the final stages of those runs, you are in fact preparing yourself for a marathon finishing somewhere between 3:45’ and 4:00’.

Not sure if you’re easy runs and long runs are at the right pace?  Check out this easy-to-use chart.

Training Pace – Tempo Run

The training pace on a tempo run is a pace slightly quicker than your easy run pace but not as quick as your race pace.

This is something that needs a little practice and experimenting but in general you should go a little faster than your easy run (or long run) pace, but still be able to talk to your running buddy.

You might feel a bit tired after a tempo run, even though it is way shorter than what you’d do on a long run, but you should feel recovered after a bit of stretching, a shower, and a drink. If you are still tired the next morning, you have likely been practicing your race pace and you could try to go a little easier the next time…

Using a heart rate monitor or breathing frequency to determine pace

All of the above is based on the idea that people gather their facts and figures from their equipment, but what if you do not carry any fancy watch or running computer?

If that’s the case, you could easily use your breathing frequency (if you do not carry anything) or your heart rate (if you wear a heart rate monitor).

Help from a heart rate monitor

If you have had an average heart rate frequency of 170 or 180 bpm in a race, then your comfort zone for an easy run will likely be 130 to 140 bpm. This mostly goes for more experienced runners.

If you have less running experience, you might have run a race below 170 bpm and find that trying to keep their heart rate frequency under 140 bpm on an easy run brings them to a pace too slow for their comfort. This feeling is caused by the fact that your heart has not yet learned to perform on low energy exercise. This will get better and your general heart rate will drop in the upcoming weeks and months.

There is also a mental issue at stake where runners just starting out cannot believe that this really easy pace is actually the right one: the tendency of “this can’t be right, this is going way too easy, surely I must speed up a little!” The trick is to get this pace going and just add a few miles each week along the way.

Help from your breathing frequency

If you do not have any tools to measure what you are doing you could use your breathing. If you are running with a stride pattern where you can do three steps while breathing in and three steps while breathing out, you should be in your comfort zone.  This is suitable for an easy run pace. Two steps in and two steps out and still able to talk on a conversational level is often fine too. Not managing more than one step each breath means this pace is taking too much out of you and you better slow down a little.

The faster your breathing frequency, the harder you are working.  Your frequency should be the fastest at your race pace, slower for your tempo run, and even slower for your easy runs (or long runs).

To wrap this up

This all works well in theory but most importantly, your physical and mental well-being tell you what you can and cannot do. In other words, listen to your body!

Today might be one of those days where you can do just about anything, but it could have also been a bad day at the office. If you are tired, have been working really hard, suffering from a lack of sleep, or just not feeling up to it, you simply need to make the best of it: run a fraction slower than you normally do, run a few (5-10) minutes or a few (1-2) kilometers less than your schedule or program says.

If you feel really strong and you do not feel the miles kicking in, just go for it and do a few more, but stick to the same pace. That is way more beneficial than to do the same distance (a lot) quicker.

In the end, it all comes down to preserving as much energy as possible to bring you to the home stretch.

Want to see your suggested training pace for a 10K,  10 mile, marathon or half marathon?  Check out this handy chart.

Got questions or comments?  Post them below.  We’d love to hear from you!


Thanks to Coach Peter for contributing to this post!

Laurie Villarreal

Laurie’s an accomplished endurance athlete and has been running since 1998. She’s the founder of House of Running and a professional Running Coach, a certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Health & Wellness Coach. Laurie’s trained and worked with nearly 1000 runners since 2010. She’s a master in her field with over 10,000 hours of run coaching experience. Laurie helps ambitious professionals make running part of their healthy lifestyle through on-on-one online coaching and fun group training programs. She has a unique holistic approach to running, helping her runners think beyond running to realize their running dreams. Click here to find out how to work with Laurie in one-on-one online coaching.

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