Does pace really matter?
Short answer: Probably not nearly as much as you think.
When runners think about a workout, what comes to mind is likely running a prescribed distance at a prescribed pace and then doing it again for a prescribed number of times. For example, in college one of my favorite workouts was 18-20 200’s every minute on the minute beginning at 35 seconds and decreasing the pace (that sounds terrible, why did I enjoy that?!). Thinking of workouts this way isn’t incorrect, but it’s also not the only way to think of them. In fact, for most runners it is probably more beneficial to toss out that pace subscription and tune in to how your body feels instead.
Pace matters to a degree because when you’re aiming for a PR at a certain distance, you want to go into the race confident that you can hit your goal. But running race pace all the time, or even frequently, is far from the answer you need to get there. Those of us who aren’t professional runners don’t have the privilege of kicking our feet up and watching hours of Netflix to help us recover from a tough workout Wednesday or weekend long run. Instead, we have jobs, families, dogs, chores, cooking, and a slew of other life components to factor in. All of these factors, as well as sleep, nutrition, stress and weather, influence each and every run we do, and rarely (if ever), are they within our control.
Because of the unpredictability and stressors that come with being an adult human, it’s useful to focus on effort over pace as a method of monitoring your training. Pace may feel like the end all be all, but while maintaining an 8 minute mile for 6 miles on Tuesday may feel like a jaunt through the park, that same pace may feel like a miserable slog for a 3 miler on Thursday. Rationally, you know you’re fitness didn’t up and leave in the 48 hours between those two runs, but if you’re stuck in a pace-based mindset, it can be frustrating and worrisome nonetheless.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but I know how challenging separating pace from effort is in practice and how many runners are resistant to it. In an attempt to convince you, I’ll tell you a bit about my journey.
I got my first GPS watch (a Garmin Forerunner 25 that required a cord to sync to my computer and seems totally ancient now) a little while after graduating college in 2013. Having been on a team my entire running career up to that point, this was my first time without a coach or running buddies. I was alone, but I was armed with (to be read with sarcasm) the wisdom and power of constant pace feedback every step of the way. As an already numbers obsessed person, I quickly found myself determining a pace I needed to run before lacing up each day and judging every run by how much faster than that predetermined pace I ran. At the time, I wasn’t really doing workouts, but with my focus on pace, I was running moderately hard to hard, every. single. day. Eventually, as I began training for my second marathon, I added in some workouts and continued to prescribe paces and force myself to hit them no matter what. I disregarded the fact that I was in the midst of a stressful first year of teaching and often sleeping too little as I tried to cultivate a social life and community in a new city. I continued on my way, running hard most days and very hard some days, believing I was on the right track because I was hitting the paces. I even qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time, so I thought to myself, ‘this is definitely working’!
Oh how wrong I was. Long story short, I ran my first Boston Marathon with a tear in my hamstring and was then shackled to the stationary bike the entirety of the summer. A major injury, the result of going too hard too often. Butttt I’m a runner so naturally I didn’t learn my lesson right away. Honestly, I didn’t even start to learn my lesson until over a year later, when I began working with my coach, Megan Roche.
When I started working with Megan, one of my first workouts was “10x1minute efforts at a pace you could sustain for an hour”. So I’d think about what pace I could run for an hour in ideal conditions and head out in the heat and humidity of D.C. summer aiming to run that pace the whole time, disregarding any and all factors that would indicate I should probably slow down (for the record, you really should slow down in heat and humidity). I trained like this for a while (and still get stuck on it often) before I started to sip the Kool-Aid Megan was serving just a little bit and play around with taking off my watch or turning off the GPS for an easy run here or there. Overtime, watch-less runs became liberating and I slowly allowed myself to run slower on easy days without fear of the pace tattling on me to my Strava followers.
Running slower on easy days was a huge first step for me and I wholly believe it was a key factor in a marathon breakthrough I had in 2018. When it came to hard, quality sessions though, my eyes were still glued to my wrist, as recently as this past September.
This fall, my job was more stressful than it has ever been and it took virtually every ounce of my physical and mental energy to make it through the school day. Because of this, I really wanted running to be going well so that I could feel successful at something. So I tried to force it. I stared at my watch as I ran workouts at 4pm when it was 90 degrees and then cried when I couldn’t keep up with the pace I had in my head. I felt defeated, slow, and ready to throw the towel. But great coaches don’t let you do that, they problem solve and get you through it. Megan’s solution for me was to turn off the GPS during workouts. I didn’t like the sound of that, but I trusted her wisdom and went for it. Admittedly I left the GPS on, but I took away the pace feedback and only looked at my paces after the workout was over. The amazing thing was, most of the time, my workouts were faster than they’d been just a few weeks earlier when I was driving myself into the ground aiming for a particular pace but I was finally running the appropriate effort rather than running too hard for the sake of a number. Over the course of the next couple months, I began really tuning into my efforts and not overextending myself to reach unrealistic goals. I did a lot of very similar long runs with bouts of half marathon effort mixed in during that training cycle and I found that one Saturday my goal race pace felt like a breeze and the following week 30 seconds slower than that was a challenge. Neither run was objectively better than the other (although I’d argue the slower one was probably better for the mental toughness aspect), the effort was similar and therefore so were the gains from it, but I finally allowed myself to run by feel and not get as caught up in judging the pace. The best part of it all was that when it came to race day, I ran about 20 seconds per mile faster than I what I typically did at the same effort in a race-pace workout (a 3 and a half minute PR), proving to myself once in for all, that it never really mattered that much what my watch said day to day.
I still have a long way to go in letting go of the pace and truly running by feel, but this morning was a proud moment for me. I got up early to run before work, which is something I don’t do often, and before I even started running, I acknowledged that my paces during my tempo and 6/4/2 minute 5k effort intervals would be slower than my actual 5k race pace because I’m not an early morning runner and I was sure to be a bit tired. This mindset allowed me to run my workout hard but not too hard and avoid crying mid-interval out of frustration that I wasn’t hitting my ‘pace’ (which I really, really wasn’t).
Clearly, changing this mindset doesn’t happen overnight, but if I’ve convinced you to give it a shot, here are a few suggestions:
- Start with easy runs! Don’t go straight to pace-free workouts, it will probably stress you out more. Start by mapping out one easy run a week so you can leave your watch at home and just run your planned route with no attention to time.
- Change your watch screen. I used to have time, distance, and pace displayed on my watchface. Now I have time, distance, and lap time displayed. Lap splits make workouts easy and with this display I can keep the GPS running without constantly seeing the pace. I still like getting my mile splits, but now it’s usually to make sure I’m not going too fast on easy days!
- Transition to time-based workouts. Instead of running 800m, 1000m, or mile repeats, run for time. If you plan on running 800 meter repeats, do the same workout with 3-4 minute intervals instead. Same workout, less room for judgment!
- Finally, get off social media/Strava if that’s behind your attachment to pace. Literally no one cares if you’re running 6 minute miles or 12 minute miles, but if you find yourself speeding up because you’re worried about what your Strava followers will think, stop running and delete the damn app right there.
So bottom line, once again, pace sorta kinda matters, but not nearly as much as you think!
This post was about 700 words longer than anticipated, so thanks for sticking it out and happy running!