How to Develop a Proper Pace for Your Races

The most important thing a beginning runner can learn is a sense of pace. Controlling pace is the key to effective training and essential to winning.

Start pace training on a track. Equip yourself with a digital watch. Set the watch to beep at your 200-meter split time. Choose a comfortably hard 200-meter pace.

As you run around the track, listen for the beep. You will quickly learn to pick up the pace if the beep comes before you pass your starting line, or slow down if it comes after.

Pretty soon, you are "on pace" and you'll hear the beep just as you swing past your starting point. As you learn, you can develop different paces at will. As you get better and better at pacing, you'll begin to relate pace to how you feel, and won't need a watch or distance markers to regulate your pace.

Then things get a little more complicated as you move from the track to trails. You can plot out a running course with half-mile landmarks for pacing. Of course trails have twists and turns, hills and flats. You can try out your learned internal sense of pace on your course, checking against the watch to learn how to adjust for hills and valleys of real terrain.

When you have learned to run while holding set paces, you can really begin to manage your training. Pace is the key factor in conditioning that controls physical improvement. Running too slow doesn't stimulate the body enough to get the best improvement. Running too fast requires too much recovery time, and the training becomes inefficient.

The most important pace for building distance endurance is the lactate threshold pace, also called the "tempo" pace. Lactate threshold pace is the fastest you can run without building up lactate in your blood.

The threshold pace is great for conditioning, since it lets you get in the maximum effort without needing extensive recovery time. You can estimate your lactate threshold pace from "personal best" mile times.

According to American Running Editorial Board Member Jack Daniels, Ph.D., your lactate threshold pace will be about six seconds slower per 200 meters than your best one-mile race pace. Or, you can measure your lactate threshold more accurately at a physiology lab.

Since everyone's lactate threshold moves up and down according to training (or lack of it), this is a better way to find out where you are, especially at the start of a season.

Runners can learn to recognize their lactate-threshold pace and use it as a benchmark, relating it to their race paces and to other training paces. This approach can be more reliable than monitoring heart rates.

As your running season progresses, your threshold pace usually creeps upward, and the other paces need to be adjusted accordingly. Measure your threshold pace again about six to eight weeks into the season. This lets you adjust your training paces and build confidence, since you are likely to see a rise in your threshold. This is the cornerstone of training improvement.

There is nothing wrong with working beyond your lactate threshold level, especially in a race. In fact, if you don't build up a pretty good lactate load, you didn't use your full race potential. Everybody has a maximum pace that they can keep up over the bulk of a race.

The problem is, if you run just a little faster than this pace, will cause the muscles to fatigue. They lose power, they feel exhausted and your mind starts saying you can't keep going. This level is the "red line" pace. Knowing when you are at the red line, and knowing how far and how long you can go when you're over it, are keys to planning and managing your race paces.

Developments in scientific training and racing are available to every runner. More is known today than ever before about how the body works and how to train. In the past tools like lactate measurement and heart rate monitors were available only to Olympic level athletes. Now every runner can take advantage of professional knowledge and training tools to develop your full potential and achieve your true personal best.

Pace is the key to winning a race or producing personal records. Before a race, you must work out a race strategy. The right race paces use your full potential through the different parts of the race, even if sometimes other runners are passing you, or if you are all by yourself, out in front.

It takes discipline, confidence and experience to hold the paces that get you to the finish having run the best race that you are capable of.

"You must understand pace to achieve the conditioning that controls physical improvement."


Bill Ruth is an NCAA All American swimmer and former world ranked triathlete. He is currently the cross country and track and field coach at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, PA. For more information on lactate threshold training and other strategies, read Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels, Ph.D., 1998, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 286 pp. Available at The American Running Store, or by calling 1-800-776-2732.)

Volume 17, Number 4, Running & FitNews
The American Running Association.

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