How to find the running pace that's right for you
Learn how to listen to your body and you can improve your pace and your chance of success in races
Starting a long distance event too fast can cost runners dearly in the second half. Photograph: EPA
From beginners to experienced athletes, pacing is always a concern. Beginners are never sure of what pace to run at, while experienced runners are constantly looking for tips to improve their pace. So much has been written on the subject that the science and statistics can truly overwhelm a social runner who just wants to get a little faster. Turning the science into practical advice, here are some pacing tips to help you improve.
Pacing for beginners
Until you can run for 30 minutes non-stop, don’t worry about pace. Time on your feet is what matters and incorporating slow running with walking breaks is the best way to build your endurance. Run at a pace at which you feel comfortable breathing and talking – even if it is quite slow.
The temptation for most beginners is to start fast, assuming they need to look like a runner. Very quickly, this can often leave them breathless, deflated and lacking in self-belief. As a beginner, if you are out of breath, use this as a signal to slow down your pace. You are less likely to get injured and more likely to enjoy your run if you control your pace. It will allow you to run longer before needing a walk break and that will build your confidence and motivation.
Over time as your endurance improves, so will your strength and your lung capacity. This will lead to your pace becoming quicker. As a beginner avoid the temptation to keep up with other runners. Run at your comfortable pace and remember no one is judging you based on your speed. You are a runner regardless of your pace.
Once runners can comfortably finish a 5km or 10km distance, the next challenge is often to run a little faster. Churning out more miles all at the same pace won’t make you a faster runner. One widely proven way to improve pace is to include speed work into a midweek training run.
Incorporate intervals of faster running followed by slower recoveries once a week. These intervals can start out at 1 minute bursts of speed, but over time a runner can build up to running faster 1km intervals.
As the body adapts to getting comfortable being uncomfortable, improvements in speed are just around the corner. Not every run needs to be an interval run. It’s important to maintain the endurance and the love for running, but a weekly interval run will help reap rewards on race day.
Don’t waste the first 10 minutes of a race warming up. Take the time to warm up before you start running. The shorter the race, the longer your warm-up should be. For a 5km or 10km, runners should feel fresh-legged from the start and be focus
ed on their planned pace rather than wasting these first minutes loosening out the creaky joints.
For a half marathon or longer, less of a warm-up is required as the running pace is slower and managing pace at the start is often a good thing. Starting a long distance event too fast will cost the runner dearly in the second half if they have used up their fuel stores too quickly. From experience, mentally and physically, it is a lot easier to finish a race feeling strong overtaking other runners in the last 1km than struggling through the final stages with everyone else overtaking you.
Race day is as much a psychological game as a physical game so having a pacing strategy and sticking to it will make your race as successful as possible. Having practiced race pace in training will help build confidence and discipline. It takes a lot of self-control to listen to our bodies, hold back and stick to a race pace strategy. There are no prizes for finishing the first half of the race fast.
From heart rate monitors to fancy watches, there is no end of gadgets
to record and display your pace. While these gadgets can be motivating, try not to let them determine the success of every run.
There is a time and place for a clock and timer, but we should also learn to listen to our body and respect how it is feeling. Remember that not every day is going to feel the same. Some days running feels great, other days it feels like an effort.
So many factors can impact your pace. Remember that food, hydration, rest, weather, menstrual cycle, time of day, warm-up and even stress can all play a part in our pace and perceived effort of a run. Learn to recognise what your body is saying to you and choose not to outrun your love of running by letting your success be always determined by a number on the clock.
It is hard to stay motivated all the time. There will be times when running takes a back seat in your life and you are far away from your optimal running pace.
Try not to get disillusioned when your running pace is not where you feel it should be. Focus on what you can do to adapt your training to move you forward slowly and sensibly.
There is a time for pushing the pace and a time to listen to the body and running at the pace that’s right for that particular day. Remember that for most of us the race is against ourselves, not anyone else and you have the rest of your life to get there.
Sign up to The Irish Times Get Running courses at irishtimes.com/getrunning
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Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between. Mary is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes.