One of the most common questions for runners of all levels is about what pace to run at. You may be starting to run and wonder how fast you should run. Maybe you started a training plan and need to decipher what “tempo run” and “5K pace” and “easy run” all mean. Knowing what pace to run at is important for all runners, not just those aiming for a time goal in a race. Different paces produce different physiological results – an easy paced run will improve aerobic fitness, long runs will increase your endurance, and speed work will, as it states, make you faster. Also, varying your paces in running prevents burnout, keeps you from reaching a plateau in your fitness, and makes running more interesting. How fast you should run depends on the type of running workout you have – but how fast you should run most of your miles will surprise you.
My half marathon training plan emphasizes a variety of paces over the course of a training week. Each week calls for speed work, a tempo run, a long run, and easy days – and each of these workouts calls for a particular pace. If I run too fast on my easy run days, I do not let my body recover enough to run fast enough on the speed work days. If I push the pace too fast or too slow in my tempo run, I will not reap the benefits that workout has to offer. If I go out too fast in my long runs, I will likely burn out and struggle to finish those ten or twelve miles.
Before we discuss how to pace, let’s look at some of the popular workouts in running and their relative paces to each other. First and foremost there is the easy run, the bread and butter of most training plans. Easy runs are supposed to be paced significantly slower than other runs, and especially slower than your race pace. Runner’s World recommends that easy runs are done 1-2 minutes per mile slower than 5K pace; the Hansons Half Marathon Method suggests 1:30-2:30 minutes per mile slower than goal half marathon pace. Since 5K pace is commonly about 45 seconds per mile faster than half marathon pace, this is a big difference. If you’re running only three or four days a week, easy runs can be on the faster end; the slower end of the spectrum is optimal for harder training plans and running five to seven days a week.
Tempo runs are somewhere in between easy runs and speed work – and thus they improve both speed and endurance. You run your easy runs at a comfortable pace, and your speed intervals at a hard to very hard pace – so tempo runs are right in the middle at “comfortably hard.” These are my favorite runs – a challenge but not exhausting, and they work wonders if you want to get faster. Usually they are run 30-45 seconds per mile slower than 5K pace, or right around half marathon pace. If you’re training for a half or full marathon, you can reap great results if you pace your tempo runs at your goal race pace.
Speed work is paced at the higher end of the spectrum. Lots of training plans will call for speed intervals to be done around 5K pace for shorter repeats and 10K pace (15-20 seconds slower than 5K pace) for longer repeats. You can easily run 400 meters (¼ mile) or 800 meters (½ mile) significantly faster than a 5K, but speed work requires several intervals and since you don’t want to completely burn yourself out. Trust me, 5K-10K pace will feel brutal by your 8th repeat of 800 meters.
Long runs are an hour or longer, depending on your fitness level and goal race distance, and should be run at a comfortable pace. You are already taxing your body by running for that long, so there is no need to push the pace. Aim for anywhere from 45 seconds slower than your 5K pace to one minutes slower than your half marathon pace – so right around the same pace as an easy run, maybe only slightly faster.
Recovery runs are kind of like easy runs, only easier. Don’t worry about any particular pace on these days – just run at what would feel like a slow pace. If you need a pace range, aim for 45 seconds to 1:15 minutes slower than your easy run. The focus here is just moving your feet and improving your blood circulation to help your muscles recover. These runs are best if you are running five or more days a week and doing some serious speed or tempo work
There are a couple really reliable ways to judge if your workout is at its appropriate pace. My personal favorite is the talk test – you judge your pace based on your breathing and ability to talk. When I run my speed intervals, I am breathing quite hard and can only get out a word at a time. For tempo runs, I can say maybe one sentence, but my breathing is still labored. For easy and long runs, I keep it at a level where I can talk easily if needed. For recovery runs, I can carry on a full conversation and usually talk Ryan’s ears off during these runs.
The other best method for finding the best pace is using a recent race or time trial. Based on how fast you ran, you can find out how fast all of your workouts should be. The McMillan Running Calculator will take a recent race or time trial time and generate equivalent paces for other distances and training paces for all sorts of workouts. I use this calculator all the time to determine training paces. If you haven’t run a recent race, find a track or marked path and run one mile (four times around the track) at a hard but not exhausting pace, and use this to determine your times.
I’ve also used the McMillan Running Calculator to determine if a goal pace for a race is realistic or not. Many plans base pace off of your goal time for the race, but if you train for too fast of a goal, you are likely to exhaust yourself or get injured and not be able to race your at best. If you do use a calculator and set goal paces, I highly recommend still using the breathing and talk test during each ran to make sure you are not pacing yourself too fast or too slow for the recommended workout.
Let’s take a look at my past two weeks of half marathon training to see the specific examples of these paces and how they all fit together into a training week.
Even though my recent 10K race time suggests a 8.20-8.30 min/mile goal pace for the half marathon, I spent the four months between the race and the start of my training increasing my running volume and working on my speed. Currently, my goal is to run sub-1:50 half-marathon, somewhere around an 8.10 min/mile average pace.
Week 5 (September 1-7)
Monday: Speedwork! I ran 1.5 miles to warm-up, then did 4 repeats of 8 minutes at roughly 10K pace and 3 minutes of light jogging to recover, and finished with one mile cool-down run. I totaled 8 miles at an average pace of 8.24 min/mile – and my repeats clocked around a 7.45 min/mile pace. The McMillian Calculator says that if I run the half marathon at a 8.10 pace, then my 10K pace is around 7.43 min/mile – so I was right on target.
Tuesday: I ran 3 miles with Ryan, and kept the pace at a recovery level because both Monday and Wednesday have more demanding paces. We clocked in an 11 minute per mile average over gently rolling hills.
Wednesday: Tempo run – 4 miles at goal half marathon pace with one mile warm-up and one mile cooldown. I ran the 6 miles at an average pace of 8.21 min/mile. My tempo miles were almost perfectly even splits – 7.55, 7.56, 7.56, and 7.54 min/mile. This is 15 seconds per mile faster than my current goal, but I ran according to perceived effort as measured by my breathing.
Thursday: Off from running – I did some strength, core, and flexibility work.
Friday: 6 miles, nice and easy – 9.20 min/mile pace.
Saturday: 10 miles at a moderate effort – average pace of 8.54 min/mile that I maintained evenly during the whole run.
So for Week 5 I ran a total of 33 miles. Of those 33 miles, 4 miles were at my tempo pace and 4.25 were at my 10K/speed pace. The rest were somewhere along the easy run spectrum, with 3 miles genuinely in the recovery zone.
Week 6 (September 8-14):
Monday: Speedwork! This time it was 8 repeats of 4 minutes at 5K-10K pace and 90 seconds easy job. I totaled 8 miles with warm-up and cool-down and averaged an 8.18 min/mile pace. For the speed intervals, I averaged somewhere around a 7.30 min/mile pace.
Tuesday: 3 miles over gently rolling hills – again at my recovery pace of 11 minute miles. Really slowing down the pace on these days works magic on my legs – they feel as good as new by the end. I also did four strides (20 second accelerations to work on leg turnover).
Wednesday: 7 miles easy on the treadmill at an average pace of 9:00 min/mile.
Thursday: Rest day from running – I did about an hour of yoga to stretch out my muscles.
Friday: 6 miles easy, average pace of 9.10 min/mile. I like to keep these runs easy so I have some power in my legs for the long runs.
Saturday: 11 miles with the last 5 miles at goal half marathon pace. I averaged an 8.24 min/mile pace overall, with the last 5 miles at 8.00, 7.59, 7.58, 7.51, and 7.46. I paced those miles according to perceived effort and breathing and I’m genuinely surprised at how fast I went.
The weekly total was 35 miles, with 5 miles at tempo pace and about 4.25 miles near 5K pace.
As you can see from these two weeks, most of the miles that I run are easy miles, around 45 to 90 seconds slower than my goal half marathon pace. Only about 12-15% of my miles are done at tempo pace and only about 12% are 5K to 10K speed work paces. Running most of my miles easy and adding in recovery miles allows me to run fast on the speedwork and tempo days. You don’t need to do a lot of running at your faster speeds, or even your moderate to hard speeds – a little bit truly goes a long way. If the question is how fast should you run, you should include some combination of speed work and tempo runs, but most of your miles should be easy miles.