Like most runners, I started off running approximately the same pace and intensity every single run. I ran mostly on the treadmill during my college years for convenience, so I would simply hop on the treadmill and plug in the same pace as the day before. I did not know anything about training paces for running or how to apply them in my training.
The funny thing is, I did not start seeing huge improvements in my pace until I started varying my training paces. I progressed from an 8:06/mile pace for the 10K to running the same pace in the half marathon within six months back in 2014 because I slowed down my easy and long runs and added in structured speedwork and tempo runs. At that point, I had already been running for six years, yet in a fraction of the time, varying my training paces made more progress than I had seen in years.
Some coaches use overly complex charts or systems, but I prefer a simple breaking of training paces for running. Whether you are training for your first race or your next PR, or you simply want to add some variety to your current running routine, these are the most useful training pace for running and how you can use them in your training.
Training Paces for Running
Perhaps the biggest training mistake most runners make is running too fast on their easy days. Pushing your body too hard too often can negatively affect your health and your athletic performance and increase your risk of injury. Your easy pace is usually 60-90 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace and 2 minutes per mile or more slower than 5K pace. Easy runs increase your endurance and general running fitness without accumulating too much training fatigue.
While pace can be your guide, especially if you have a habit of running too fast on your easy days, you will benefit from learning how easy running should feel. You should be able to carry on a conversation with your training partner (or, if you are running alone, feel like you could carry on a conversation). If you are huffing and puffing, slow down.
Some coaches refer to this as a steady state pace. Marathon pace is harder than easy pace but not so hard that you notice a significant change in your breathing, as you do with threshold pace. Marathon pace represents a realistic goal pace if you are training for a marathon; if you are not training for a marathon, you can use marathon pace to interject some moderately paced days and variety into your easy runs.
Threshold (Tempo) Pace
Commonly, threshold pace is described as “between 10K and half marathon race pace.” That’s a wide range for most runners and most of us will agree that 10K pace is much more aerobically taxing than half marathon pace. Jack Daniels defines threshold pace as comfortably hard, or the pace at which you could sustain for a 60-minute race for a well-trained runner.
In training, threshold pace is held for 20-45 minutes, with longer threshold runs often being divided into intervals with short recovery to keep the workout a workout rather than turning it into a race. Training at threshold pace improves your ability to sustain a faster pace over a longer period of time.
I explained the value of training at your VO2max in this post. Training at this pace maximizes your aerobic capacity and increases your speed. For 5K and 10K runners, VO2max intervals prepare you to sustain your goal pace for the distance. Even if you are training for a marathon or half marathon, some well-timed VO2max intervals will help you run faster, especially at the end of a long distance race when your slow-twitch muscles fatigue.
For most runners, VO2max pace is in the range of just over mile pace to 3K pace (1.86 miles) – approximately the fastest pace you can sustain for 10 minutes of continuous running. The quantity of work is often divided into shorter intervals of 3-5 minutes during a workout, such as a fartlek or track run, which allows you to incorporate more than 10 minutes total of running at VO2max into a single workout.
Mile pace is primarily utilized in very short repeats, such as strides and 200 meter and 400 meter intervals. This training pace develops your top-end speed and can improve your running economy. Mile pace is only slightly faster than VO2max pace, but anything faster than your maximum aerobic capacity can only be sustained for short periods of work.
Using Pace Calculators to Determine Training Paces
A labratory VO2max test and threshold test will provide the most accurate training paces for you, but the time and financial costs of such tests make them an unrealistic option for most runners. The simplest way to determine your training paces is to use one of the pace calculators developed by expert coaches and physiologists. While individual variance does come into account, these will give you a starting point and remove the guesswork.
Personally, I rely on the Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator for my training paces. Daniel’s system provides clear cut training paces: easy pace, marathon pace (aerobic threshold), threshold pace (aka tempo pace), interval pace (VO2max), and rep pace (mile pace), along with suggesting equivalent race times based off of statistical averages.
(As a note: If you are using the VDOT Calculator, note that the threshold pace applies to segments of 20 minutes or less of running at threshold pace, since Daniels utilizes threshold intervals more than continuous tempo runs. Per his methods, you add a few seconds per mile for every increase in duration of a tempo run, so that 45-60 minute tempo runs are at approximately half marathon race pace).
The McMillan Calculator is another valuable calculator for runners, again based off of data from thousands of runners. The McMillan Calculator offers wider pace ranges and more options for pacing – for example, different ranges for long runs, easy runs, and recovery runs.
In my experience coaching, I find that the McMillan Calculator works best for runners whose strength is speed and are fast trainers, while the VDOT Calculator better suits runners who excel at long distances. But that is simply my experience – you may be a marathoner who swears by the McMillan Calculator or a 5K runner who loves the Daniels Calculator.
What race time should you plug into the calculator? You want to use your most recent best race time. For example, if in the past six months you ran a slower than normal marathon in extreme heat and a fast 10K in normal conditions, choose the 10K. Your race times provide an accurate assessment of your fitness and therefore will produce the most accurate training paces from a calculator.
Do not enter your goal race time into a calculator. You want to train based on your current level of fitness, not where you want your fitness to be in three to six months. If you base your easy pace and threshold pace off of the big PR you want to run in your next half marathon, you may end up overtraining or demoralized during training.
Most importantly, know that no calculator is perfectly precise for the individual runner. The formulas rely on statistics and data trends, assume similar training and running economy, and therefore cannot account for individual variances. Runners who only run long slow distances may find that the calculators overestimate their VO2max, while runners especially gifted with speed but not endurance may find that the calculators overestimate their marathon pace. Learning to focus on perceived effort will help you better assess your personal training paces.
How do you determine your training paces?
What’s your workout today?