Reader to Reader: Running at different paces

Training to run continuously for longer periods of time is a great way to measure your progress, but if you’re running at the same speed day in and day out, you’re likely to see your improvements plateau. Unfortunately for this week’s questioner, the thought of running at different paces is proving troublesome – can you help him get more for his miles by lending a hand?

"I began running about six months ago, on a run-walk training routine and progressed to do my first 5K in 30:05. I have kept on running since and am really enjoying it. In the magazine, I’ve seen quite a few articles mention "race pace" - 5K pace, marathon pace, mile pace etc. What is this? How fast is it? How do you measure it? During my regular runs I tend to be out for around 40 minutes and do about four or five miles, although this morning I managed a PB of six miles in just under an hour, only walking for three minutes in the middle. Should I be thinking about running at different paces?" Scott Lawson

Your best answers

  • Better to be overcautious than overdo it
    After only six months of running and while you're still including walk-breaks in your runs, your priority should be to build up your mileage gradually while maintaining an easy aerobic pace. When you start to run, your muscles, tendons and joints have to do a huge amount of adaptation to cope with such a high-impact activity, and this process lags well behind the improvement in your aerobic fitness. There's no short-cut, and introducing hard sessions (in duration or intensity) too early is a recipe for injury. Keep those copies of RW aside with the speedwork articles bookmarked. If you're still running injury-free in another six to 12 months' time, get them out and read them again. – Velociraptor
  • Try setting distance (rather than time) goals first
    Use your first 5K race as a starting point for your race pace. If you fancy trying another race at a different distance, use this RW Calculator to give you a rough guide of what you're capable of. Remember though, a lot of people are more suited to either long- or short-distance running, so this table may be a few minutes out. It depends on what sort of racing, if any, you're thinking of doing as to whether you should be worrying about different types of paces. In preparation for my first marathon, all I did was set aside a day and run each distance as fast as I could. This then gave me a ball-park time to aim to beat. Only after two marathons and 12 months later, did I join a running club and start thinking about speedwork, and my minute-mile pace. The coach, along with many RW articles gave me lots of advice on what sort of things to aim at. – Little Lizard
  • Your range of paces will automatically increase with experience...
    The fact is, us slower runners don't have as wide a variety of paces to choose from as a faster runner. If the slowest anyone can run is say 12-minute miles, a runner who runs a 5K at 10-minute-mile pace won't have the same range of options as someone who can run five-minute miles (since they can run at any speed between 12-minute miles and five-minute miles). Therefore, a slower runner's 5K pace is much the same as his 10K pace. – Eva Midsole
  • ... but for the best results, you’ll need to work at it too
    If you always train at the same pace, you will not be able to step up a gear for racing. If you do want to improve your performance then you need to take yourself outside your comfort zone. If you do this regularly your comfort zone will change and you will be able to run faster for the same effort. If you always train at a slow pace, you will get used to running at an easy pace. It’s then more difficult to run hard in a race if you have not tried it in training. – Colin Watts
  • Fitting in the fast stuff is easier than you might think
    This question used to puzzle me too. My approach has been to aim for a particular 5K (or other distance) time and train at the paces that would allow me to achieve that distance. It is important to include bursts of speed in some of your runs, whether that is building from running quicker from one lamppost to the next and then recovering or running fast for a mile. Just run a bit quicker than your normal pace to start with and then it will get easier. – Rio Fair
  • The more miles you run, the easier it gets
    You can increase your pace very easily simply by running more miles at an easy pace. If you build up your easy miles to 70 -100 a week you can be confident of running very fast times. Have a look at the principles behind base training. – Johnny J
  • Varying your sessions will help you stay motivated
    For the average runner churning out 60+ miles per week all at the same pace would be pretty dull. By mixing the sessions - some faster and shorter, some slower and longer - you add variety and maintain interest. Also, by varying your pace you resist the urge to ‘race’ every training run. If you don't have a set pace for a given run and tend to cover the same route (as we all mainly do, especially early on) then your temptation will be to try and go faster than you did yesterday and be disappointed if you don't. The theory is you should follow hard with easy so by leaving your watch behind and just plodding along gently you negate that risk. One final word of warning - if you are still at the stage of taking walking breaks then I would be inclined to slow down your runs and simply try and finish a given distance without a break before starting to mix short/fast and slow/long. – amadeus
  • Strike a balance by following these basic training principles
    This is how I see it. You could run three times a week and run race distance as fast as you can. After a couple of weeks you'll start to get tired and find it difficult to replicate previous times. You'll also start beating yourself up because you're not improving. You could throw in a few more rest days and then repeat. This may do the trick and you could see some impressive lowering of your times for quite some time. It’s not a particularly pleasant way to train though, and you do risk injury. Alternatively you could just churn out steady miles, one or two minutes slower per mile than your race pace. You could be running almost every day and getting in some high mileage after several months. You will improve but not very quickly. However, you will find that you can recover from runs quickly - and that's very important for the long-term. A better (and more varied) approach is to structure your training as follows: one third steady runs, one third quicker than steady, one sixth slow recovery, and one sixth fast. For 30 miles per week for example, that would be 10 miles steady, 10 miles tempo, five miles fast and five miles slow. This has the advantage that you can get some steady miles in for general conditioning, you get practice at running near to race pace, and you get to do some running which is quicker than race pace. – JRM
  • Train with others to gauge (and improve) your capabilities
    I'm inclined to suggest that you try and concentrate on improving until you don't need the walk when you run for 60 minutes. You're probably running fast enough if you need to walk and it's important to build up time (an hour seems about right) before worrying too much about speed. It won't take too long to achieve it. I've always found gauging pace very difficult but found that a running club was the answer for me. You can find people who run at a similar pace to you and this will help you maintain it for a 45-minute run. If you want to run a bit faster, try and keep up with the ones at the front of the group. Some running clubs are really good with beginners and cater for all speeds, always doubling back to keep the group together. – Chilli Cat

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