How to Find Your Perfect Running Pace

If you’re new to the running community, you’ve probably heard the phrase “running pace,” but don’t have too much of an idea of how that pertains to you. 

In this article, we’ll discuss running pace, why it’s important, how to calculate pace, and the correct pace for different types of training runs.

At the end, you’ll know how to figure out your perfect running pace no matter what kind of run you’re going on.

What is running pace?

Running pace is very simple. It is usually defined by the number of minutes it takes to cover a mile (or sometimes a kilometer, depending on where you live). Runners rarely talk about miles/kilometers per hour. Rather, they talk about miles/kilometer per minute.

Thus, an example of a running pace would be 12 minutes per mile instead of 5 miles per hour or 6 minutes per mile instead of 10 miles per hour.

runner at track at night about to run correct pace

Is it hard to find the right pace?

Like anything, finding the right pace takes practice. When you first get on a bike, you can’t be expected to ride like Lance Armstrong. Likewise, when you’re first getting into running, you’re not going to know pace like someone who has been running for a long time.

Exercise physiologist and founder and coach of McMillan Running in Flagstaff, Arizona Greg McMillan, M.S. says that ideally runners will train at different paces—particularly in the 50 to 70 percent effort range—so that they can race at 100 percent. But this is challenging for even the most seasoned runners, McMillan notes.  

Perfect pacing means that you’re doing your slow days slow enough (chances are that you aren’t) and your fast days fast enough (and there’s a possibility you might not be meeting that either).

A recent European Journal of Applied Physiology study found that many recreational runners were off by almost 40 seconds in judging their pace. College runners tended to be off by only 10 seconds per mile.

Why is the right pace important?

Having the right pacing impacts so many different areas. First, it has a substantial influence on your performance on race day. Start off too fast, and there’s a good chance that you may not even finish the race (and you’ll definitely be dragging it to the finish line).

If you need proof, this study shows that every world record from the 1,500 up to the marathon for both men and women has been achieved by individuals who ran negative splits, or running the second half of a race slightly faster than the first.

If you want to do well on race day, knowing your right pace is essential. Even if you’d rather start off running a 8:00 minute mile for your half marathon, you might end up doing better starting off a little slower.

Second, knowing the proper pacing helps you target your workouts. When you start training for a race, your plan is often based on a particular goal time. But if your goal time is really too fast for your current fitness level (meaning you don’t know what your proper pace is right now), then your workouts will suffer.

You’ll be putting forth the wrong effort levels, and you won’t be working as hard as you need to in order to meet your goal time that is way beyond your current fitness level. While you’ll definitely see fitness gains, it will impact your training program and race day.

Finally, you’ll increase your risk of injury if you don’t know your proper pacing. If you’re determined to run a 1:45 half marathon, but that’s not where your fitness level is, you’re likely going to experience an injury because you’re going to be going way harder than you should every workout.

How do I figure out my pace?

Use a GPS watch or phone app

Obviously, the easiest way to figure out your pace if you’re running outside is with a GPS watch or phone app. But remember that this is going to give you good information, but it’s not completely accurate.

Your watch and phone may take some time to sync up, and it might tell you that you’re running at a particular pace, but that’s not accurate at all. 

For example, I recently ran a 5k with my brother-in-law, and we had an 8-minute mile pace goal. When I looked down at my watch during the first mile, it said that it was an 8:30 pace. I thought we were running faster than that, but we sped it up just a bit.

It turns out that we were actually running at a sub 7:30-minute mile pace, but my watch was apparently still waking up and hadn’t synced properly. After we picked it up a bit, the watch quickly dropped down to a 7-minute mile pace, and I knew it had been off for a little bit.

Also, always looking down at your watch or phone is a perfect way to ruin a run even if it’s on race day, so don’t look at your watch so much! 

Instead, look at it as infrequently as you can. I personally allow myself to only look at it when it buzzes on the mile mark during training runs and a bit more often on race day.

Run with a stopwatch at a track or place mile markers

Tracks are a great way to get a good idea of your pacing because they are completely flat. If you want to know where your fitness level really is, a track will give you accurate information. 

And if you bring a friend, you can give him or her the stopwatch and just run, not needing to check every 10-15 seconds what your pace. Instead, you can wait until you make it around the track to get an update.

Another option is to place mile markers or run on a trail that already has mile markers. You can check the stopwatch every time you pass a mile marker and know what your pace was for that particular mile.

Run on a treadmill

The nice thing about a treadmill is that you can set your pace. If you want to run a 10-minute mile, you can set the treadmill at 6, and your body will keep a steady pace the rest of your run.

Just keep in mind that treadmills need to be tuned frequently to ensure an accurate pace. Treadmills, especially at gyms or a hotel, may not provide the correct pace.

runner at track at night about to run correct pace

How can I find my perfect running pace?

There are two ways for you to figure out your perfect running pace. One doesn’t require any devices and that’s by feel. The other is by heart rate, and you’ll need a watch or a treadmill to figure that out.

By feel

2:11 marathoner Nick Arciniaga tries to work on pacing by feel every workout by learning his body signals. By teaching yourself pace by feel, then it’s easier for you to know during a race if you’re going too fast or too slow without needing your watch to tell you.

In a similar vein, 2:14 marathoner Nate Jenkins encourages runners to monitor their breathing as a way to quickly notice changes in effort. Even a small change in speed can change your breathing, and this can help you identify your perfect space.

Jenkins says to cover up your running watch and listen to your breathing. When you start to breathe slower or faster, uncover your watch and see what impact it has on your speed.

You should ask yourself two primary questions about effort and breathing: 

  • How hard does it feel?
  • How hard are you breathing?

By heart rate

For heart rate, you’re going to have to do more work. First, you need to figure out your heart rate zones. As an example, a 30-year-old tends to have a target heart zone of 95-162 beats per minute (bpm), which is 50-85% of the average maximum heart rate zone.

Then you can use this information to run. If you’re trying to complete a recovery run, you’ll want to be closer to the lower end whereas a tempo run should be closer to the higher end.

Obviously, you’ll need some sort of device to help you with this. A GPS watch would likely be easiest because you can just look down at your wrist and see your heart rate zone, but you can also use the heart rate monitor on the treadmill. The former is likely more accurate.

What is my perfect running pace?

Now that you know what running pace is as well as how to find your perfect running pace, you might want to know how it varies for different types of runs. We got you covered here.

Long Runs and Recovery Runs

For long runs and recovery runs, you’ll want a nice easy pace. Your breathing should be light, and it should be easy to keep a conversation. You can try yourself and see if you can say the Pledge of Allegiance. If you can with little effort, your pace is good.

You’ll want to target about 70% of your maximum heart rate. That means that if you’re a 20-year-old and your max heart rate is 200 bpm, your heart rate should be at 140 bpm. If it’s above that, you’re going too fast.

Tempo or Interval Runs

With a tempo run, you’re going to want to push yourself a little bit harder. Your pace should be medium to hard and your breathing should be hard but you can still take full breaths. You likely won’t be able to keep up a conversation.

Your heart rate should be at 85%-90% of your max heart rate, which means 170-180 bpm if you’re 20 and your max heart rate is 200 bpm. Anything slower than 170 bpm is too slow for a tempo run.

Conclusion

Congrats! You now know how to figure out your perfect running pace and why it’s important. Now is a great time to put down the computer, slip on your running shoes, and go for a run at your perfect running pace!

The Wired Runner