Most runners train for a race with a goal pace in mind. Many will train for that goal pace by running it in varying distances and durations during their training.
Various authors, most recently and notably Matt Fitzgerald in 80/20 Running, advocate building a solid base of mostly easy running from which you can do a bit of tempo-specific running each week. This makes sense since your ability to run fast won’t matter much without the aerobic development to sustain a desired pace over your desired race distance.
Jeff Gaudette of Runners Connect takes this a step farther. He actually posits that most runners already have the desired speed to run a goal pace, that what they lack and need to develop is the aerobic and neuromusucular fitness to sustain that pace for their desired race distance.
Gaudette has a good point. Whenever you are able, go outside and run as fast as you reasonably can (i.e. don’t hurt yourself). I imagine if your pace was measured you’d easily exceed your desired goal pace.
I also imagine you won’t be able to hold that fast-as-you-can pace for very long. Running at max speed, you’ll be winded and your muscles will be neurally screaming in seconds. I’ve done max speed reps for giggles a few times, and I find the longest I can reasonably go at that intensity is about 30-45 seconds.
When we do speedwork, we’re not really training ourselves to run faster. Most of us already can run pretty fast. What we’re training is the ability to hold a given speed over a desired distance, whether that distance is 400 meters, 5K, or a marathon. (Ultra distance runners by and large have other aerobic and endurance concerns during training aside from speed)
This is why many coaches say the goal of speedwork should be economy, i.e. refining your form and taking every step as efficiently as possible, so that when you run your races you’ve honed and improved the efficiency of every step.
I realize I’m digressing a bit. I mentioned easy pace for a reason. We focus a lot on speedwork, on our goal pace, while forgetting that every goal pace has a corresponding pace at other distances… as well as a corresponding regular and recovery run pace.
The paces in Daniels Running Formula, in the calculators on the McMillan Running website, and so on can be a bit crude in that they assume a fairly uniform dropoff as the race distance increases. For young competitive and elite runners this is fine, but for many other casual and low-key competitive runners it’s not as accurate. This is not a big deal from the mile to the 10K but tends to overestimate most runners’ abilities in the half marathon on up.
Still, they can provide an accurate barometer of what a corresponding pace looks like in other race distances, as well as the pace of your typical easy training runs.
Using the Electric Blues Daniels Tables calculator, let’s take a 5K pace of 23:30 (very close to my 5K PR, by the way!) and use it to estimate capable race paces at other distances, as well as a set of regular running paces:
According to the doc, a typical easy training pace for these race paces would be between 9:32-10:12 per mile (5:55-6:20 per kilometer). So, let’s say any of those race paces were your goal pace. Along with training at that goal pace, you could on your regular runs train to hit that easy aerobic pace on your regular runs.
Of course, if that’s faster than your typical running pace, then training speed and training “easy” at those paces could burn you out.
Let’s go back to Fitzgerald’s 80/20 principles, and flip things around a bit.
Most training plans start with an early base-building phase, often with fairly light speed and tempo work. Most of your running is regular, presumably easy distance running.
If you have a goal pace in mind, you can calculate these paces and then focus these regular distance runs on hitting the easy aerobic goal pace in all those runs. Spend weeks getting used to that pace in regular running, and by the time you ramp up your goal pace speedwork running easy at those paces should be a lot easier. You may be surprised how do-able your goal pace becomes in later speed workouts.
This approach also diminishes the negative impact of skipping a speed or tempo workout. As long as you’re still working on hitting easy aerobic pace in your easy distance runs, you’re still building aerobic endurance for you desired speed and your goal race.
This can be useful in plans from the 5K on up. But it can be super useful in marathon training. Many marathon training plans have you do very little speed and tempo work, possibly none, in the initial weeks of training. Also, hitting a goal marathon pace is far more difficult than hitting a 10K or even half marathon goal pace. A lack of aerobic fitness is often the culprit.
Thus, if you spend those early weeks hitting a goal easy aerobic pace over extended distance runs (especially those long runs!), reaching an equivalent goal marathon pace becomes less of a challenge once you begin your tempo training.
This incidentally is one advantage of the Hanson Marathon Method. When you pick out a goal pace, they give you a set of easy/regular running paces to go with it, and while there’s little speed/tempo work in the beginner plan… the expectation in early distance runs is that you’ll hit the easy paces in those runs.
IronFit also does this in their Marathons After 40 plan, while additionally setting the benchmark that you should be able to get within 60 seconds per mile of your goal marathon pace in all your long runs.
The idea of challenging your pace in regular and long runs is one of the underlying principles behind Jack Daniels’ marathon training plans. Granted, he takes it to a relative extreme by building speed segments into nearly all the scheduled long runs. But the understanding is that you need to challenge yourself to hit a desired tempo in your runs to hit any desired pace in a goal race.
ALL of that said… we once again go back to 80/20 principles and remind you that most of your running needs to be easy to maximize aerobic development and avoid burnout/injury. If your easy runs are too hard, too fast, too anything… at best, your development will stagnate, but most likely you’ll stay worn out and get injured a lot.
“So Steven, what’s this about pushing yourself on easy runs even though pushing yourself on easy runs will burn you out?”
So hey, hypothetical speaker, some important points:
– Obviously, your goal easy pace needs to be comfortably sustainable over the entire run. If the stated easy aerobic pace is a tempo-level challenge for you to hit, your goal may be too high. Or maybe you need to dial back your mileage until it’s comfortable.
At the very least, break your mileage into multiple shorter runs if it’s just a case of struggling to sustain it for a full hour. Do two 30 minute runs if those are do-able, until you can manage it for longer. Or even break your long run into 2-3 shorter runs.
If even a 30 minute run is too much at that pace, your goal pace might be too fast for now.
– If you run almost every day, and you have multiple easy runs between your key workouts (long runs, speedwork, etc)… you can also focus half of your easy runs on maintaining the stated easy aerobic pace, and on the other half just relax and run however fast or slow you want.
Perhaps gradually they become the same pace, and the easy aerobic pace becomes your actual easy running pace. However, you can decide on certain runs to go after the stated pace, and on others not to force it at all.
– You can use the easy aerobic paces as a sort of tempo, starting your runs at a slower, more comfortable pace and then doing those paces as a “fast” finish… or as “fartlek” segments where you hold it for a minute or two, then relax and run easy for a minute or two, and repeat… or do a Hal Higdon style “tempo” run where at some point during the run you ramp up to the aerobic pace for a few minutes, then slow back down.
Basically, if holding them for an entire run is too tough, then just hold them for part of the run and take it easy the rest of the run. They’re a guidepost, not a mandate.
All that said, if trying to nail a goal pace, calculating an equivalent easy aerobic running pace can help you, because getting comfortable with running that easy aerobic pace should make it easier for you to run your goal pace.