Why Pacing Matters and How It Affects Your Running

We’ve all probably heard the phrase “pace yourself” in one way or another — but the words take on a lot more weight in the context of efficient running training.

One of the keys to successful running is in understanding your body’s capacity for various types of running training. There are plenty of variables (e.g., distance, speed, or intensity) that can affect how your body utilizes energy and responds to different workloads, and it’s imperative to take each of them into account throughout your training.

Pacing is all about how well your body can distribute its energy throughout an entire run; so let’s review what that looks like in the big picture and how it applies to your unique needs.

What is Pacing?

In its most basic definition, pacing refers to the rate at which you run (i.e., how quickly you run a certain distance). The main premise behind it is to ensure that you preserve enough energy for your entire workout, which is an especially important factor for longer distance running. Without pacing, you risk potential issues like burnout and overtraining. (But, as you’ll read soon, pacing is equally as important for higher intensity runs, too.)

To determine your pace for a given run, you can use a smartwatch or a treadmill to generate the information, or, you can calculate it after your runs by dividing your total distance (in miles or kilometers) by the time it took to run it.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it!

…In theory, at least. But there’s plenty more to discuss when it comes to understanding pacing and its impact on running.

Why Do You Need Different Paces?

Simply put, what works well for one type of run won’t work as well for another.

Say you’ve designated today to doing speedwork, like a sprint or a round of intervals. In order to truly benefit from these fast, high-intensity workouts, your body needs to maximize its energy output to fuel rapid, powerful running in quick bursts.

But if you take that same level of work and apply it to a long run… that’s just straight up unsustainable.

The same logic applies to the inverse, too — there’s no way you can reap the benefits of a speed workout if you approach it like a long distance run, right?

That’s why most resources will talk about pacing in relation to the different types of running workouts. Basing your pace off of specific workouts can give you a solid idea of what “steady running” looks like for the corresponding intensity, ensuring that your body can maximize the energy spent with each type of run.

Physiological Benefits of Different Paces

Unsurprisingly, the different intensities you can run aren’t just for show; they each come with their own physiological benefits. (And, depending on your running goals, your training plan will comprise the workouts that can best supplement your progress.)

With lower intensity workouts, your body is more focused on improving aerobic capacity, as it’s being challenged to run at a lower intensity for a longer period of time. And when we say “low intensity,” we don’t mean your easy runs — endurance workouts should still have you working at roughly around 65-70% of your maximum heart rate. This is a solid rate at which your body can learn to produce and utilize oxygen consistently as a steady source of energy for your muscles throughout the run.

As for higher intensity workouts, you’ll be focused on the counterpart to your endurance: your anaerobic systems. Rather than relying on oxygen as its primary source of energy, your anaerobic capacity utilizes glucose stores to fuel these workouts. Speedwork is all about increased levels of intensity within a shorter amount of time, so using glucose as an energy source is the perfect way to quickly develop power and speed. The more practice you get with hill sprints or intervals, the better your body becomes at utilizing these glucose stores for truly powerful running.

But wait; there’s more!

In addition to the extremes of low and high intensity workouts, you also have a “middle ground” alternative known as tempo runs.

Without getting too lost in the weeds, here’s the breakdown behind tempos: at a certain rate of intensity, your body requires more energy than what can be provided from oxygen alone (i.e., surpassing the aerobic capacity). As your body demands more energy, it begins to produce a byproduct known as lactate as its first source of alternative energy.

However, our bodies tend to produce more lactate than they know what to do with, causing a buildup that impacts our muscles’ ability to contract. Tempos were created to prevent this kind of buildup, as they’ll push you hard enough to both produce and consume lactate at an equal rate — and this is what’s known as lactate threshold training. Once you’ve achieved this steady state of energy use, your body is able to manage longer durations of this moderate intensity run without facing burnout.

Varying Your Training Intensities

Remember: while your running goals may benefit more from aerobic versus anaerobic training (or vice versa), you shouldn’t be exclusively training one system over the other.

After all, why limit yourself to just one approach, right? You can’t run every race the same way, nor should you try to — successful running training thrives with variety!

A runner’s body is a complex hybrid engine; tuning it requires exercising at different paces to stimulate endurance, metabolic efficiency, and anaerobic power (both in generation and coordination). Since a runner needs to extend their capacity in each of these realms, training is necessarily composed of workouts designed to invoke a specific, physiological response.

Thus, a plan to prepare a runner for any distance from the 100m to the marathon (and beyond) contains a variety of workout structures and paces.

For the evolving runner, the challenge then becomes: how do you execute this range of paces with continued training, varied terrains, and effects of fatigue?

Most elite athletes will say that they “run by feel,” but what does that mean to the recreational runner? Regardless of your athletic caliber, runners require a stable methodology in order to reliably achieve various training intensities (under an endless variety of conditions). It demands deliberate, controlled techniques to make each pace happen and learn how each should feel.

How Do I Find the Right Running Pace?

Before we dive into the process of perfecting your running pace, it’s important to address the elephant in the room: there’s no magic number that works for every runner.

Each athlete is unique, not just in their capabilities, but also in their overarching goals. It can be easy to feel conscious of your running times when others around you are going faster or slower, but what works for their ideal pacing may not be the right fit for your training.

And we aren’t just saying that as a cop-out — even if you base your training off of a pacing guide, finding your ideal running pace can still take some trial and error.

Use Pacing Charts for Reference

When you’re first starting out, your pacing likely won’t match up with the averages you find on the internet. It takes time for your body to adapt to such a wide range of paces, and no athlete is capable of taking on elite level pacing right out the gate.

But! It’s tough figuring out your pace from scratch, so finding a chart that measures average pacing for your caliber of training can be an excellent starting point. Plenty of resources have calculated average pace ranges for individual types of workouts, like this chart below:

In this example, the chart’s calculations have been based off of a 26 minute 5k distance. And as you can see, the average pace ranges here are designated to specific types of running workouts.

(With all that being said, if you’re still learning what your pace looks like, you probably don’t have a 5k run time to base calculations off of. In that case, you can use a running pace calculator to get some working numbers.)

You can trial these estimated pace times to get a feel for how they work with your training — but before you do, there’s an important consideration that needs to be addressed…

Focus on the Feeling (Not Just the Metrics)

As you’re easing into new realms of training, it’s important that you aren’t strictly dialed into hitting all the “right” metrics. Between pacing calculators and predetermined pacing charts, you won’t have numbers nearly specific enough to your training; it’s just as important (if not more so) to pay attention to how your body responds to the training, too.

And perhaps you’re wondering: why focus on the feeling when it’s not a consistently accurate measure? Why not just rely on a smartwatch?

Well, for a myriad of reasons. But you don’t just have to take our word for it — our friend and local sponsor, Coach Naomi of Hydration Team, has several insights as to why checking your smartwatch isn’t the best method for staying on pace…

“Here’s why I’ve discarded that approach myself:

  1. The ‘lift-&-squint’ motion interrupts your stride and puts you off balance.
  2. Garmin readings can “lag” on short fast intervals, and can be just plain wrong.
  3. Focusing on the external number causes you to miss internal cues (i.e., how your body feels).
  4. This method gives you a skill that ONLY works when running on the track.
  5. When you start getting stronger/faster, you have to recalibrate (i.e., do it all over again!).”

She makes some good points, right? Relying entirely on technology to tell you how you’re running in the moment can detract from your body’s instincts and warning signs. If you don’t pay attention to how your body responds, you’re boxing yourself into metrics that aren’t the best fit for your training and efficiency.

Be sure to check in with yourself to make sure your runs still feel productive: Does it feel like you’re pushing yourself too hard, or not enough? Does your body feel challenged or overworked? Does the timing leave you feeling rushed, or is it enough to allow for a steady rate?

With these questions, there are no wrong answers! It’s about how YOU perceive your effort and how your body feels as you adapt to it. Just remember that running by feel takes some time, and a whole lot of practice — the elite runners make it look easy because they’ve been doing it for a long time! Feeling out your different paces is still a skill to build, so allow your body to adapt over time.

Pacing Takes Patience

And there you have it! The in’s and out’s of running pacing and some general guidance on how you can find the right running rate for you.

Learning how to pace yourself sounds simple in theory, but just like running itself, it can be deceptively tricky to master. Intentionally trying to achieve a specific intensity is a complex balancing act, and it’s one that can be honed as a skill with enough practice.

We think Coach Naomi put it best: 

“[The skill of pacing] does NOT depend on how fast or far you can (or do) run, nor the frequency… We speak to our bodies through the workouts we do, and when we can precisely control that conversation by executing a specific intensity level, we send a clear message to our bodies [that allow them] to adapt. Running random workouts can be fun and stress-relieving, but that doesn’t create a coherent message to achieve the progress we seek.”

So, fellow runners, go forth and practice that pacing!

By Megumi Kamikawa

Megumi is a graduate from San Jose State University with a degree in English, Creative Writing. Previously, she has worked as a Writing Specialist, where she served hundreds of peers in the SJSU community with her knowledge of English pedagogy. In addition to her experience with academic, creative, and professional writing, she has experience with creating visual and informational resources for various audiences. She has enjoyed taking courses on anatomy and basic physiology, and continues to educate herself in the world of health and wellness through her work with Competitive EDGE.

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