One of the great things about the coaching work we do is helping true beginner runners get started in the sport. Often these ladies and gentlemen are coming to the sport of running in midlife, attracted by the health and fitness benefits, but they are quickly engaged by competitive fire and challenging their limits in running.
I recently received some feedback about one of our training programs about making sure we fully explain, for the beginner runner, certain elements that experienced runners take for granted as common knowledge. One of these was about pace. Literally what the word means in the context of running and why it’s important to understand when constructing your training program.
I hadn’t thought much about it, I’ve always talked about doing running at a certain pace – when I was young that was usually just how fast the pace per kilometer was in racing, these days it’s usually in reference to the pace required to elicit a certain training effect, or more realistically, how slow I need to run to survive any given training session!
Pace definition – as it applies to running
The Oxford dictionary had this to say about pace, but I could see there were numerous other definitions and uses of the word that could leave a non-runner confused.
[mass noun] speed in walking, running, or moving: he’s an aggressive player with plenty of pace [in singular]: the ring road allows traffic to flow at a remarkably fast pace
- the speed or rate at which something happens or develops: the industrial boom gathered pace [in singular]: the story rips along at a cracking pace
- Cricket the state of a wicket as affecting the speed of the ball: he can cope with the pace of the Australian wickets
Pace is relative to your fitness and ability
In running pace is all about how fast you are moving and is usually expressed in relation to how fast you could run a mile, 10 kilometres (tempo pace) or even a marathon. The key word here is you. It’s all relative to your personal ability and current fitness levels. If I pick up a training program and it says do 6 by 200m repetitions at mile pace, I don’t try and do them at world record pace, I do them at my theoretical mile pace on that given day – which is a function of my current fitness and training.
Running training paces explained
When you begin to follow more structured training programs for running it becomes important to integrate different training paces into your regime. The purpose is to stimulate physiological adaptations as well as physical changes to muscles and tendons that can trigger improvements in running performance and technique. It also provides a welcome break from lots of tedious repetitive running at a slow speed – running a bit faster (relative to your regular jogging pace) from time to time is more fun.
One of the areas we focus on with beginner runners is making sure that not too much running volume is done at very slow pace. The reason being, that in the early days it’s easy to slip into the habit of trying to run further than your body can sustain reasonable technique. So rather than trying to force beginners to constantly increase miles covered or spending a long time on their feet running, we prefer to encourage shorter bouts of running with walking recovery between.
Running fitness is more than your ability to endure
One of the core components of my training philosophy is keeping strength, coordination and fitness in balance. Aerobic fitness tends to come along faster than strength and coordination – especially for beginners. This means you can get fit enough quite quickly to do damage to your body while running with poor technique caused by lack of strength and body control when running.
The training paces defined by Jack Daniels in his excellent training guide Daniels’ Running Formula pretty much cover everything you need to know about pace and how it relates to your current fitness. Every runner and coach should own a copy. The following is adapted from Daniels to help explain why different training paces are important for beginners and how they can be used to train and practice running with proper running form.
Easy pace: Commencing at a comfortable trot, working up to a jog or slightly faster if you’re very fit. This is a good pace to commence running and do some of your longer runs. Seasoned campaigners can fall into the trap of running their easy miles too fast, but at the opposite end of the spectrum beginners can find themselves struggling to run fast enough – especially when they’re following a training plan that adds mileage incrementally on a regular basis.
Marathon pace: The pace you could run at for a theoretical marathon, given your current ability and fitness level – you don’t need to be running marathons to use this pace. Marathon pace is great for building endurance without over working the body, it also gives you another slightly faster pace to prevent your running from getting too slow. Think about finishing the last 10 minutes of some of your longer runs at this theoretical marathon pace.
Tempo or threshold pace: The pace you could sustain for a race of between 10-15 kilometers. Using this steady but searching pace in training builds monster fitness without fully taxing the body. You should always be in control of your breathing at this pace. It’s challenging, without being an all out effort. Experienced runners can use this pace in structured interval sessions such as 5 – 8 × 1000m @ tempo pace or for longer continuous tempo runs of between 2 and 9km.
For beginners, training sessions at this pace of 1 minute running repetitions separated by 1 minute walking rests are a great way to begin practicing good movement patterns without needing to be super-fit. So you might jog warm up for 5 – 10 minutes, then do 5 – 10 by 1min efforts with 1 minute walks between, then have a jog warm down.
5k race pace: A pace you could sustain for a 3 – 5km race. This is quite fast and will likely result in you losing control of your breathing and potentially your running technique. Don’t train at this pace unless you’re very fit and/or have done significant volumes of tempo pace work. This is a good pace to avoid for beginners unless the distance or time repetitions are kept very short e.g. <200m.
Repetition or mile race pace: A fast pace without being an all out sprint. In theory, you could sustain this pace for 4 laps of a 400m running track. The idea is to run quickly, but not be straining for speed, in essence relaxation with some intensity. You should be able to run your repetition pace and still be in control of your running technique. Repetitions are usually short efforts of between 100-400m.
Beginners can train here if they are healthy and not carrying injuries, but the repetitions need to be short in the early stages 50 – 150m. Again this type of training is a great way to build strength, coordination and good technique.
Strides: Smooth accelerations from jogging to to mile race pace or slightly faster, but not sprinting. Strides are typically done between 60 – 100m. Use strides to practice good running technique and keep your body working in a good range of motion. Note: Hill strides can be done between 30-60m and for beginners this is a good guide for doing strides on the flat.
So what’s your training pace? Of course everyone has different abilities and levels of fitness so it’s important to know what your training paces should be. The Daniels system provides tables that very finely estimate each training pace based on your current fitness level. This is based off a recent effort over a short or longer distance – a three to five kilometer fun run is perfect to use as a benchmark. I’ve found the tables to be very accurate and a great way to prevent yourself from running too fast in training (a major cause of injury).
The key for beginners is to not max out on lots of long, very slow running training. Remember working on your strength, coordination and technique is just as important as building fitness. If you’re worried you can’t do enough volume to stay fit and not get injured, then cross training in the pool, on a bike or rowing machine is a great supplement.
This reminds me, I think I went a whole article without mentioning the importance of strength training! As a beginner this is your best friend for building running ability, injury resistance and longevity in the sport.
Words and images by Brian Martin