Progress from “today” speed to target speed

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In November 1968, Steve Prefontaine was an American high school senior with a two-mile best of 9:01, set the previous spring. His audacious goal for his senior year was 8:40, well under the national high school record of 8:48. To get him there, his coach, Walt McClure, devised a training plan based on the principles he'd learned while running for University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. The plan involved workouts that mixed running at goal pace (4:20 per mile for Prefontaine) and running at what Bowerman called “date pace” - the pace Prefontaine could sustain in a hypothetical race held right then.

Training at these two paces is an effective way of plotting your progress toward an ambitious goal, making it instantly clear where you currently stand, how quickly you need to improve to peak at the right time and whether you're on track to succeed. Prefontaine's date pace in November was 4:54, but under McClure's training it steadily quickened over the subsequent months. By spring, date pace and goal pace had merged, and Prefontaine ran a record-setting 8:41.5. Here's how to apply the same principles to your next big goal.

Set your goal pace

It's important to keep ambitious goals within realistic reach. Don't aim to run more than about 5 per cent faster than your PB for that distance. If you're an experienced runner who has raced the distance multiple times after good training, aim for 2 to 3 per cent improvement at most.

Set your pace goal

Your date pace needs to reflect your current fitness, so don't use your PB to determine it. Instead, run a race. For goal races 10K and shorter, schedule a 5K or 10K race or time trial every four weeks to update your date pace. Don't taper or take the races too seriously; just run hard and use the results to guide your training. If you're targeting a half or full marathon, use an online calculator to convert from shorter races. For example, to prepare for a marathon, stick to half marathons every eight weeks, with a 5K or 10K in between.

Plan the progression

The two key variables are how much you need to improve and how long you have to do it. If you're in shape to run a 44:00 10K (7:05/mile) and you want to run 40:00 (6:26/mile) in four months, your pace needs to quicken by just under 40 seconds per mile, which means speeding up by five seconds per mile every two weeks. If your date pace drifts more than four weeks behind (or ahead of) schedule, adjust your race goal.

Run the workouts

Do goal- and date-pace repetitions once a week. Start with short reps at goal pace (GP), but do the bulk of the workout at date pace (DP). For example, 12 weeks before a marathon do 4 x 400 at GP with 1:00 rest, 4 x 1600 at DP with 2:00 rest, then 4 x 200 at GP with 1:00 rest. Slowly boost the proportion of goal-pace running: four weeks out, try four to six sets of 1,000 at DP, 30 seconds rest, 600 at GP with 2:00 rest. By then, if there's less than a 2 per cent gap between goal and date pace, you're on track.