Everybody always talks about getting faster when it comes to running. Setting new PRs and doing speedwork, tempo runs and race pace, and chasing that one specific time goal that is just slightly out of reach. Me too.
And it’s not that it’s a bad thing. In fact, if it weren’t for trying to get faster and improve, for many people there would be no running: we thrive on that quest for the next best, the next goal, the next accomplishment. But sometimes that clouds what you should really be after: pace.
By definition, speed is a measure of distance over time, and “looks at time as a constant“. That is, in a specific amount of time you cover a certain distance and if you want to increase that speed, you have to cover more distance in that same amount of time. By contrast, pace is the number of minutes it takes to cover a certain distance, usually a kilometer or a mile. In this case, the distance is the constant and you are playing with time. The difference is, that when we are training based on speed, at some point, we can’t increase our distance covered any more in that set amount of time, (due to fatigue), and we inevitably slow down and lose speed. Play with pace however, and if you find the sweet spot, you can maintain it for a long time. Speed is instant gratification, pace is delayed gratification. It just depends: are you running a 400m track event or a marathon?
When you are running for a long time (i.e. more than 10km), proper pacing is what gets you through. We’ve all been at a race where we see people start out super fast (i.e. at a high speed), and we look like the turtle in the background. But 10 kilometers later, and there they are again – behind you because you passed them thanks to your steady pace. Improving pace is a very useful training method to help you get faster and achieve better times. Here’s how you can make it happen:
Part l: The Math
- Become familiar with (your) pace – In other words, go for a run, track your pace, and see what a certain pace feels like physically, and more than that, what your current pace is. Don’t try to run faster or slower, or any different, just run the same as you always do. In fact, start your watch and then return it to the time screen, and don’t even pay attention to it while you run. You can’t improve or get faster if you don’t know where you are now and what that feels like.
- Understand pace – This is the part where you sit down and do some work with your current time, your time goals and your current pace. In order to run a certain time, you have to run at a certain pace. Each type of run will have it’s own pace. For example, you will have marathon pace, 10km pace, easy run pace etc. Figuring out where you are in all of these currently is the first step to figuring out where you need to be: based on what you find, and the time you want to achieve, calculate the new pace you need.Here’s an example:
Current pace (average): 4:41 min/kilometer
Current 10km time: 46:53
Goal time for a 10km race: Sub 40 minutes
New pace (average): 3:59 min/kilometer
In the example, the individual needs to take 42 seconds off of every kilometer, and increase her pace to 3:59 min/kilometer to be below 40 minutes over 10 kilometers
Part ll: The Training
Once you know where you need to be pace-wise to achieve your time goal, you can now start training accordingly. No more just going out and doing tempo runs and running “fast.” Yes of course, you still need to do speedwork, but the goal of it will be to improve your pace, not your speed. Here’s some pace training tactics to employ to help you at your start, finish and middle of your race and improve your overall race as a whole:
- Practice a sustained effort – Since pace is about a sustaining a constant effort over a long period of time, focus on this in your training. Each week, starting with a 10 kilometer distance, at your 10k pace, do a run where you practice maintaining a faster than normal pace over the entire distance. This should be a comfortably hard pace – one that you know you can sustain, but that is faster and harder than what you normally run. Increase your distance and pace each week.
- Vary your intensities – This translates to varying your pace. In a single workout, practice going between different paces over a period of several kilometers. For example, start at an easy pace, 2 kilometers later a half marathon pace, 2 kilometers later a 10k pace, 2 kilometers later a 5k pace, and finish for a kilometer giving whatever you have left. Doing workouts like this helps you transition between paces, helps you get a feel for how fast or not fast a certain pace is, helps you know the maximum pace you can sustain for the maximum amount of time and helps you see how much you have left to give at the end. Too much leftover likely means you could have gone harder throughout. Do this workout regularly and increase your paces each time.
- Work on your starts – If you are the start out too fast type, this is one area you need to focus on in your training. Once you have determined your appropriate paces, practice starting a little under pace and then working up to maintaining your appropriate pace. Be aware of your tendency to overshoot how fast you should be going and bring it back down as necessary.
- Practice your finish – If you do it right, part of proper pacing is that in the last few kilometers of your race, you’ll have enough left in you to pick up your pace and pass everyone who didn’t pace well on your way to your PR. To do this, in your training, practice picking up the pace in the last few kilometers, and train for the final kick!
If you are used to using speed to track how fast you are going, spend some time understanding and training for pace and see how it can help your running.
Speed looks and feels impressive, but at the end of the day, accomplishes less. Pace knows it doesn’t matter what we accomplish in one instant, but rather how steadily we can maintain it over time.
Jonathan Beverly, RW