When you go out for a run, you have a couple decisions to make. Among these, you have to decide how far you are going to run, and how long you are going to run for. Combine the ideas of distance and time, and you arrive at pace. Experienced runners generally have a good idea of what pace they can maintain for their three, five, ten, or twenty-mile run. Newer runners, on the other hand, might struggle with the idea of pacing, and how pace changes with distance.
But pacing is critical to success in meeting your running goals. With a better understanding of what your body – legs, lungs, and mind – can handle, you’ll find your running more enjoyable and rewarding.
In this article, we’ll discuss running pace, why it’s important, how to calculate it, and proper pacing 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 minutes per mile/kilometer.
Thus, an example of a running pace would be 12:00 per mile, instead of 5 miles per hour, or 6:00 per mile instead of 10 miles per hour.
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 at the pace or for the distance of a Tour de France pro. 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. And you certainly will not be able to hold a pace like the pros you see winning the Berlin or Boston Marathons, even for a much shorter distance.
Exercise physiologist Greg McMillan says that, ideally, runners will train at different paces—particularly in the 50—70% effort range—so that they can race at 100 percent. But this is challenging for even the most seasoned runners, McMillan notes. What do those percentages mean to you?
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). What that means, exactly, varies from person to person, and even day to day.
A recent European Journal of Applied Physiology study found that many recreational runners were off by almost 40 seconds per mile in judging their pace. College runners, who are carefully coached, 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 of your running. 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.” This is when you run the second half of a race slightly faster than the first. In other words, these record-setters ran conservatively at the start, and then finished strong.
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 injury, exhaustion, or both. Your workouts will be way harder than what your body is ready for. That, more often than not, leads to setbacks.
How do I figure out my pace?
Use a GPS watch or phone app
Obviously, the easiest way to calculate your pace is with a GPS watch or app. But remember that, while this gives you good information, it’s not completely accurate.
GPS connections for watches and phones are far more finicky than most people realize, and this means that the pace information can be off. Sometimes, by quite a bit.
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.
On that note, repeatedly 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! Part of learning pacing is learning to run by feel and not rely on tech so much. Look at your watch 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 place to get a good idea of your pacing because they are completely flat, and a standard length (400 meters). 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 them the stopwatch and just run, not needing to check your pace every 10-15 seconds. 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
Sure, some people call it the “dreadmill.” But the nice thing about a treadmill is that you can set your pace beforehand, and then the machine maintains the speed while you need to simply keep your legs churning. If you want to run a 10:00 mile, you can set the treadmill at 6 mph, and your a steady pace will be assured.
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.
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.
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, it’s easier to know during a race whether 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 pace.
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?
Practice makes perfect, and you’ll soon learn how to gauge your efforts for speed work, recovery runs, and long runs alike.
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.
You can then use this information to pace runs. If you’re out on a recovery run, you’ll want to be at the lower end of the range. A tempo run should be closer to the higher end. There are different benefits to each type of run, and to get those benefits, you must be at the right pace for that type of workout.
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 and 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
Long runs and recovery runs are all about building aerobic capacity, and that means keeping pacing well within your limits. You want a nice, easy pace that you can maintain for a long period of time. Your breathing should be light, and it should be easy to keep up a conversation. No one to talk to? You can try yourself and see if you can say the Pledge of Allegiance, or a poem you know. 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
These speed-base runs are more about building your cardio capacity, and that means pushing your limits a bit. For a tempo run, your pace should be medium-to-hard. Your breathing should be hard, too, but you should still be able to take full breaths. You likely won’t be able to keep up a conversation.
Interval runs are more ab out exceeding your limits and pushing into anaerobic territory. In other words, a pace you can’t maintain for more than a few minutes at a time. By running this hard for brief periods, your easy runs will gradually become easier.
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.
Congrats! You now know how to figure out your perfect running pace and adapt it to the various workouts in your training plan. 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!