Saturday, July 14, 2012

Training by Pace

This is one of those posts that I almost don't write because I think most people who read this are fairly experienced recreational runners and have probably already worked through these kind of basic issues, and I don't have enough expertise to write anything useful about the less basic issues. But if you're kind of a new-ish recreational runner (ie, just starting to run with a GPS device & worry about your pace), or just starting to think about actually training for a race (versus just running a bunch of miles, then racing), you might get something out of it. In short, I guess this is the kind of info I'd wish someone had passed on to me when I was in that place.

When I trained for my first half marathon, I didn't have a Garmin & could only estimate my run paces after the fact by running with a regular stop watch, using Mapquest or some such to estimate how far I'd run, then doing the math. (I did set up a spreadsheet to do the calculations for me, at least.) Given the lack of precision of online maps, this was less than helpful a lot of the time. Sometimes what I thought was a good clip turned out to be pretty slow. Sometimes what felt slow turned out to be reasonably fast.

Not that pace was particularly relevant to me at that point. My training plans then were pretty impressionistic. The looked a lot like this:

Because I was Garmin-less, I ran my HM pace workouts at the track & just tried to hit each 400 more or less in the right ballpark. Am I saying this is a lame way to train? Absolutely not! It was in fact a GREAT way for me to train at the time. I ran consistent (if not particularly high) mileage, didn't get hurt, and averaged only 5 seconds slower per mile in the race than the ballpark pace I'd been practicing in my pace runs. So I can tell you that it is completely possible to train reasonably well for a half on low mileage, no Garmin, & paying only the vaguest shred of attention to pace.

Then I got the Garmin. And I went absolutely NUTS over pace info. In those early days, my training plans became a little scary in their meticulousness. To wit:

Now if you are thinking that looks a lot a little obsessive & scary overboard, it's probably because you are a sane person with a relatively healthy relationship with your training. Let me tell you about the consequences of writing a plan like this and then trying to follow it to the letter with your Garmin:

  • Making yourself crazy trying to respond to minute pace fluctuations on the Garmin. "Eek! 7 seconds too fast! Ack! 11 seconds too slow! Ook! 8 seconds too fast"
  • Running too hard up hills, because dammit, you know what that number should be! Likewise,
  • Running too slow down hills
  • Running too hard in the heat
  • Running too hard into the wind
  • Running too slow with a tail wind
  • Running too hard when you feel really crappy
  • Holding back unnecessarily when you feel extra good
  • Convincing yourself that there's a meaningful difference between a 7:58 mile and an 8:00 mile.
  • Obsessing over why you couldn't hold x:xx pace to save your life on one day & the next day you felt like you could've run said pace indefinitely

And so on. In summation, this was a useless, stressful, and thankfully short-lived period in my running life.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I ditched the Garmin or that I think it's some tool of the devil. I think it can be really, really useful, if it's used in an appropriate & responsible way. That was Lesson One re: training by pace.

Lesson Two is to realize it's smarter to train by "pace" than by PACE.

PACE = a literal, inflexible interpretation of a specific number. Ie, I wanted to run a sub-1:40 half, which meant I needed to run a sub-7:38 pace. So I literally tried to hit exactly 7:37 splits every single mile, regardless of all the factors listed above.

"pace" = a realistic, impressionistic interpretation of a specific number that takes things like terrain, weather, human bodies, etc. into account. Forced to tie a number to the phrase "half marathon pace," I guess I'd say I'm shooting for around 7:35ish these days, but on my pace runs I'm now completely comfortable with anywhere between 7:20ish (downhill with a tail wind) and 7:50ish (uphill with a head wind).

Which brings me to Lesson Three.

    Coach Jenny: Do not try and hit the pace. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
    Neo Novice: What truth?
    Coach Jenny: There is no pace.
    Novice: There is no pace?
    Coach Jenny: Then you'll see, that it is not the pace that is hit, it is only your effort level.

I am not perfect about this, but I am SOOO much better about it than I used to be. Yes, I glance at my Garmin on pace runs and I make an effort to stay within +/- 15 seconds of the pace I'm shooting for, but I have also accepted that there are things that are out of my control that can affect how easy or difficult a given pace is on a given day. On a tough day or in tough conditions, I may average closer to 7:45ish on a HM pace run. On a great day I may average sub-7:30. And that is because I have really let go of a specific number as the thing I'm shooting for primarily and learned to target a certain level of effort instead. If it's a HM pace run and I'm having to put forth more effort than I know I can sustain for 13 miles in order to hit 7:35 splits, then I back off, because really, it's not a HM pace run; it's an HM effort run. In science-speak, effort should be the independent variable and pace the dependent one, not the other way around.

I won't tell you that learning to run "pace" by effort is easy. It isn't easy. It's taken me years and I've only recently felt like it's something I've started to get a decent handle on. Last summer I ran a bunch of 10Ks and started to get to the point where I could pace myself pretty well without looking at my Garmin, going just by how I knew I should feel at that pace at certain points in the race. In the last few months I've focused more on half marathons, so recently I've been getting better at that. I hope that the next time I train for a marathon, I'll at least begin to get a good feel for that pace, too.

So yeah. Let your Garmin serve you, rather than becoming a slave to it. It's been incredibly liberating for me to learn to run by feel rather than glancing at my damn wrist every 20 seconds. If you haven't yet, I really recommend giving it a try. :)


  1. Did you think of me as you wrote this? No, I'm not that self-obsessed but this is GOLD as I'm trying to find the pace I need to go sub-two. Thanks for the info, I need to have a think about it all. I actually really like your first, very basic training plan!!

    One question. Why do you only train to run 5 miles at HM pace when you need to hold that pace for 13.1 miles, and then run long at a slower pace? Shouldn't I be building up to hold 13.1 miles at that pace??

    1. Hey, glad it's useful! I started answering your question in detail but it got really long so maybe I'll just write another post. :)

      The short answer, though, is that if you're running race distance at race pace during your training, you're basically "racing" during that workout, which for most people takes so much out of them that they have a hard time keeping up with the rest of their training runs & continuing to make progress. It does seem like you should have to do the full distance in your training, but if you can work up to say half the distance comfortably & are also doing your long, slow runs, your body should be able to do the full distance at pace on race day. :)

  2. Great post! I ran for a couple of years without owning a garmin- this included my first marathon too. I survived by my nike running watch, but once I got my garmin it was life changing! I have become a bit obsessed with my mine, which isn't good. Until recently I relied on it too much and it drove my coach crazy! He would make me do some of my workouts without and that was very beneficial to me and helped me realize that I was relying on it too much. The funny thing is that my coach has never owned a garmin or "gadget" as he likes to call them, until last week when he broke down and bought his first ever "gadget". Now he says he doesn't know how he ever ran without one. I love the fact that he has officially joined the dark side!

  3. Very interesting post indeed. Forever I never had a garmin, until just recently in 2010 did I get one. I do like how it shows all the data on it, I like the heartrate and pace data mostly. I thought running with the heartrate monitor helped to keep me in check out there on the roads, so I don't run faster than I should on runs. When my garmin broke in Feb 2011, I didn't run with one until just now, it was somewhat refreshing to run without one. Though I always wondered how fast I was running.

    I like to run based on effort (heartrate), so depending on how you are feeling that day depends on how fast you should run. Which is why running on a strict pace regimen might not work for me, because sometimes you feel better and it is easier to hit a certain pace - and sometimes you feel worse and it feels like you are in quicksand trying to maintain the same pace.