Ask an Expert: Running Pace

Question: The whole idea of “running pace” is foreign to me–I’m a new runner! However, I read a lot about it in magazines and hear about it at local races from my friends. Can you help me better understand what it is so I can apply it to my running when I’m ready? — Michele A. Finding your running pace isn’t as difficult as it sounds, you just need to be in tune to what your body is telling you–and when. Here are a few suggestions you can try when you are ready to find your running pace. When I first started to try to run, I was met with failure at every attempt. I’d strap on my shoes, take off down my block and within seconds be out of breath and pulling off to the side to stop. I had an image of what a runner should look like, and more mistakenly, I thought I had to run at a certain pace to be a real runner. It took me a few years to master running, and the secret was in letting pace be the outcome of all my runs. Instead of heading out and trying to maintain a certain running pace, I began to run to the tune of my body. At first this meant running slower and mixing in walking intervals. Once I could run continuously for thirty minutes, I began to mix up my running workouts; some days running a little longer, some days a little faster. This helped build running endurance and speed over time. I’ve been coaching “new” and seasoned runners for over twenty years and the number one mistake many of us make is to try to run by pace and hold it. Sometimes this works out well, but many times it leads to slower times, aches and pains and injuries.  
  Let’s say you go out for a longer run for 70 minutes. (Don’t be scared by that number, with a little training you can get there!) The trick with developing running endurance is you want to run at a conversational effort level to boost fat burning enzymes and time on your feet. You know you’re in this easy effort zone if you can talk in full sentences while running. If you can only get out a few words at a time, you’re out of this zone and working harder. If you head out for this run with a specific pace in mind if can lead you to running both too slowly and too quickly. That’s because the body doesn’t know pace it only knows effort. If you run this workout on a hot, humid day and run by your body, it will be significantly slower than running the same workout in perfect weather conditions. Other factors like sleep, nutrition, stress and the like can also affect your pacing performance. On the other hand, let’s say the planets are in alignment and the weather is beautiful and cool, you slept well, ate well and are having a stellar running performance day. If you head out and run at a specific pace in this case it may be too slow for where you are fitness wise and this holds you back from improvement. The goal is to run with purpose, with a training zone in mind (easy, moderate or hard) and to the tune of what the day brings. Because when you do, you’ll find your pace is the outcome of your performance and will improve over time. You can easily train in the optimal zone by first learning what they are, and then learning how to pace yourself to train within the right zone for the purpose of the workout.  I like to keep things simple, so I use three core zones when I coach runners, Yellow, Orange and Red:
  • The Yellow Zone is for easy effort runs and those longer endurance runs.
  • The Orange Zone is geared to workouts like hilly courses or tempo runs where the aim is to boost your red line threshold so you can run faster at easy effort levels.
  • The Red Zone is exactly the way it sounds–it’s that hard effort where you can’t talk and the goal is to push hard and fast to build stamina, form and fitness.
When you’re new to running, you might spend more time in the Orange Zone with your running intervals because running is a challenging, high impact activity. Once you build some running fitness and your body adapts to the training, you’ll also develop more running gears like a bicycle–where you can learn to run in all three of these zones. Like riding a bike, as you become more fit and skilled, you will learn how to run to the tune of your body’s effort.  Whether it be easy, moderate or hard, your pace will become a statistic you can track to see your progress along the way! Happy Trails. Coach Jenny Hadfield Coach Jenny Hadfield is a published author, writer, coach, public speaker and endurance athlete. To find out more, visit our Meet Our Writers page or visit Coach Jenny’s website.