Running Paces, Explained


Running itself might be simple - just run! - but scratch the surface and you're going to learn A LOT of new words and phrases just to figure out HOW to run! One of the most common questions newer runners have is what all the different paces mean!


Paces in ascending order of speed

  • Recovery

  • Easy

  • Aerobic

  • Marathon Goal Pace

  • Half Marathon Goal Pace

  • Lactate Threshold/10k Pace

  • VO2Max/5k Pace


Easy Run

One of the most frustrating things for new runners is how SUBJECTIVE everything can be, because so many things depend on your personal fitness and training journey. There's no prescribed "easy running" pace - sorry! But an easy run, or the pace at which you should be running most of your miles, can be described in many ways"

  • a pace that you can easily hold a conversation at without gasping for breath

  • a pace where you feel like you can 'run forever' without hitting your limit

  • a pace that is in your heart rate Zone 2 AND/OR less than 75% of your max heart rate (for most people, this is between 120-150 bpm)

  • a pace that is anywhere from 2-4 min/mi slower than your (current, not goal!) marathon pace

The most important thing to remember that an easy run can change in pace depending on the day: the weather and how you feel on any given day can have a big impact. So don't just decide that xx:xx pace is your "easy run" pace - take each day as it comes, and remember: there's RANGE of paces for all of these types of runs!


Recovery Run

This might appear to be the same thing as an easy run, but it's different: it's a shorter, VERY easy run specifically following days where you have a hard workout like intervals or a long run. You'll know you're doing a recovery run correctly if you feel BETTER when you get home than you did when you went out the door! It's almost impossible to go too slow, so take a chill pill, let your ego go, and enjoy this recovery time.


Aerobic Run/Steady State Run

"Wait," you might say, "I thought ALL running was aerobic?" Let's set that aside for another day and talk about what to do when you see "aerobic run" (sometimes called "steady state") on your schedule. An aerobic run is faster than an easy run, but you should still be able to hold a conversation (albeit only in brief sentences). You're most likely to see these runs on your schedule if you're training for a half or full marathon since your Marathon Pace is physiologically at the top of your aerobic running pace range.


Lactate Threshold/"Tempo" Run

Hold on to your hat: this is the one people find the most confusing because everyone seems to use it differently! Let's quickly define "lactate threshold" (and you bet we'll be exploring this in-depth in a later post). Your Lactate Threshold is the point at which your body, which produces lactate (also called lactic acid) while you run as a metabolic byproduct of burning fuel, can't clear out the lactate at a fast enough rate and causes the lactate to slowly build up in your muscles and will eventually cause you to slow down and stop.


"So...how fast should I run?"

Since most of us can't get to a sports lab and have a lactate threshold blood test taken while we're on the treadmill, most of us don't actually know what our "lactate threshold" is. But that doesn't matter! There are many ways to figure out how fast you should be running at your "tempo" or "lactate threshold" pace.


IT'S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: THIS IS NOT AN ALL-OUT SPRINTING PACE! Depending on your fitness, you should be able to hold your tempo/lactate threshold pace for several minutes up to 1 hour.


Your Lactate Threshold/Tempo Pace is:

  • a pace that is about 30 seconds min/mi slower than a recent 5k race pace AND/OR pace that is about the same as your 10k race pace

  • a pace that is conversationally hard - you can get out a few words at a time, but not easily

  • a pace that is in your heart rate Zone 4-5 AND/OR around 90% of your max heart rate

  • a pace that you have calculated using the RUNNING PACE CALCULATOR


VO2Max Pace

Like your lactate threshold, your VO2Max is something you can get measured in a lab. Quickly defined, your VO2Max is the maximum rate at which your cells can consume oxygen without going into an oxygen debt. You CAN run faster than your VO2Max pace, but only for short periods of time. Your VO2Max pace is FASTER than your lactate threshold pace, and can most easily be described as your 5k pace.


GOAL PACE RUN

You'll see this often on half and full marathon training plans: x miles or x minutes at "[half] marathon goal pace". This might seem like the most self-explanatory of all the paces, because many runners train with a goal time in mind, and can easily calculate their goal pace using the VDOT calculator. But be careful! If you choose a big goal that results in a goal pace that's much faster than your current abilities, you can overwork yourself and potentially cause injury by over-reaching; better to dial back that goal pace in the first few weeks of your training rather than risk getting hurt! A simple adjustment of 15-30 seconds slower than your goal pace can help your body acclimate to the training and be able to handle your actual goal pace later on!


GEAR TO HELP YOU

You might get to the end of this and think... "but how can I tell how fast I'm running?" The good news is all you need is a GPS-enabled device! While some people use an app on their phones like Strava as their tracker, most people wear a smartwatch, like an Apple Watch, or a Garmin (which comes in a range of prices and models, from the ultra-affordable Forerunner 35, to the wildly popular Forerunner 235 and Forerunner 245 with Music, to the ultra-fancy Fenix Series). These watches will give you your pace in real-time, and also measure distance, heart rate, elevation gain, and more!


 

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