Perceived Effort a Better Way to Train than “Race Pace”

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: How do you find your ‘marathon pace’ or ‘race pace’ (5k, 10K pace)? I know my usual pace for training runs, and have done a couple of half-marathons, but I’m not sure what is meant by those terms for training purposes?  ~Pam

A: There’s nothing more confusing than to be a first time marathoner being guided to run long runs at your ‘marathon pace’ or better yet, one to two minutes slower than your planned marathon pace. First, you haven’t acquired a marathon pace yet, and second, this is about as accurate as my chances of picking the winning lottery numbers.

Okay, I’m stepping off my soapbox. Sorry, this gets me a bit riled up as I spent the better part of 20 years coaching runners to avoid this training myth. Training by a race pace will teach you only to run at that pace, and depending on the day, that could be way too fast or slow based on your fitness. It’s a great way to get injured, as we all want to run fast and we naturally plug in faster than we should be running paces.

The most effective way to train isn’t all that technical. It doesn’t have to include lots of hard-to-pronounce words or calculations. In fact, it’s quite easy. Train based on your body – by effort or how your body is feeling – and for a specific purpose on that day.

When you’re running for fitness, you can afford to play with the intensity of running workouts or even run harder more often because the program you’re on is horizontal in nature (you’re not building mileage weekly). When you’re training for a race, specifically a long distance race, you’re building mileage and – for seasoned runners – intensity until you peak and then taper to the race start.

All this is to say, replace the word “pace” with “effort” and you’ll always train at the right place on the given day. For example, you’re training plan calls for a six-mile workout with four of the middle miles at planned marathon pace. You could guess what your pace will be in several months, or you can replace the word “pace” with “effort.” So you’re now running a one-mile warm up at an easy, conversational effort followed by four miles at marathon effort and then finish with an easy-effort mile.  Marathon effort for newbies will be one notch above an easy effort run and for seasoned marathoners it will be at a moderate to hard effort (where you can talk but only in one word answers).

Training by focusing on “effort” vs. “pace” on any particular day will be more beneficial to your training overall. For instance, you’re still tired from this last weekend’s long run and you’ve got an easy run planned for Monday and a tempo run on Tuesday. If you run at a pace you think is easy on Monday, it is likely too hard if you’re still tired. Therefore, you end up running hard on an easy day and delaying the time it takes to recover. This carries over to the tempo run, which you run by pace, and is too hard of an effort, taking more out of your body and further delaying your recovery. This can lead to overtraining, fatigue and injuries.

Training by effort makes all things as easy as using a tablet device. Think of it in three zones: the easy effort (yellow), the moderate effort (orange) and the hard effort (red).

Yellow Zone: This is the effort level where you can’t hear your breathing, you’re able to easily talk and you can run here for a very long time.

Orange Zone: This is the effort level where you start to hear your breathing, but you’re not gasping for air. You can talk, but it is more challenging to get out sentences, so you use one- or two-word answers.

Red Zone: This is the effort level where your breathing is vigorous. You can’t talk, you’re reaching for air and counting the minutes until it ends.

The point at which you go from the orange to the red zone is called “the redline,” or the threshold at which your body begins to burn glycogen more rapidly. This is important to know because you can train to increase the point at which you hit the redline, and therefore run faster at easier efforts. I’ll cover this in another blog post.

Long story short, the goal is to make every workout purposeful and on target. Our performance varies based on the day, sleep, nutrition, training demands, age and more. By training by how you’re feeling on the day and by what you’re body is telling you – you’re dialing in the exact effort that will maximize performance and recovery rates, which translates to improvement.

As you gain experience, you’ll begin to gain a sense of pace based on performances and can predict to a closer degree what you may run on race day. But even then, training for a specific finish time both puts you at risk for injury and limits your performance. Break out of the usual pattern of go-to paces, and tune into your body.  Before you know it, you’ll be running faster, longer and stronger and using pace only as the outcome of the performance.

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