How to Find Your Optimal Running Paces, According to Running Coaches
Sport & Activity
Here's why varying your running pace is critical to remaining injury-free—and shedding time off your personal best.
Whether you're training for a race or just enjoying a daily run, it isn't sustainable—or healthy necessarily—to run fast all of the time. In fact, running too fast too quickly can lead to injury.
"Not every run should be the same in your training", explained James Dodds, a marathoner and running coach at Rogue Running based in Austin, Texas in the US. "Knowing which pace to run on easy days and which to run on hard days will ensure you are both fit for race day [and] not injured from training".
So how can you figure out what your optimal running paces are and if you're hitting them? For starters, it's more about how you feel rather than specific numbers, although those shouldn't be entirely ignored, either.
To find out more, read what running coaches have to say about identifying optimal running paces.
Why is it important to know your optimal running paces?
Knowing your optimal running paces provides important structure, whether you're training for a race or just enjoying the act of getting out there. Finding your go-to paces provides an important foundation for all of your runs. For example, a long run pace is going to differ from a shorter or more intense workout.
Optimal training paces may be most helpful for new runners who have at least two to three weeks of training under their belts. Nike Running Coach Jes Woods said that when you're starting out, running by feel and effort is ideal, especially as runners will begin to correlate paces with perceived effort (or how hard each pace feels) as training progresses.
How can you identify your optimal running paces?
The best way to find your optimal running paces is to do a time trial on a track, according to both Dodds and Woods. You want to do a new time trial every training cycle or season, which typically resets when you begin training for a new race or distance.
The distance of the time trial may vary depending on your coach and the length of your race. It also depends on whether or not you're training for a race at all—there is such a thing as finding an optimal pace for fun runs as well. For example, Woods said she instructs her athletes to do a 3K time trial (7.5 laps on a 400-metre track) while Dodds said he recommends running either two miles or a 5K (3.1 miles or 12.5 laps on the track).
Whatever the length of your time trial, one thing is key: the distance should be more than one mile. Woods said any shorter distance is "less telling" when it comes to assessing fitness. Although for those who are just beginning to run regularly, doing a one-mile time trial is a great place to start.
So, how do you do a time trial? Woods recommended running around the track as fast and as well as you can. When you complete your trial, record your finish time and plug it into a pace calculator. Not only will it generate your optimal half marathon and marathon race paces, for example, but it will also propose optimal paces for other training runs (such as recovery and tempo runs) based on your time trial splits. Or, for beginners, a pace calculator can help you get an idea of what pace to aim for as you gradually increase mileage.
Bear in mind that pace calculators propose estimates to help gauge what feels most comfortable to you. This is why having a range is so important—some days your recovery run (or even your tempo run) may be faster than other days. Running with a heart rate monitor can also help you determine what recovery rate is best for you on any given day.
Why are running paces usually provided via a range?
Woods admitted that the above pace range for an easy run (9:20–10:15 minutes per mile) is huge. There's a reason for that: every recovery run is going to be different. This is due to multiple factors, including the terrain or surface you're training on, the weather conditions that day, how well you fuelled and hydrated prior to your run, and even your current stress levels—just to name a few.
What this means is that your optimal pace (for any type of run) isn't always going to be spot on, and that's OK.
"If there's an important aspect to pace, it's that there's always a range", said Nike Running Global Head Coach Chris Bennett. "It's not 'this' pace, it's 'around this' pace, because you are not the same [runner] every single day".
It's important to know that running pace calculators don't often list your exact race paces as ranges, but you should still think of them in that way during training. This will help you learn your perceived effort for various paces (which is especially important if you forget your watch for a training run!) and can help you account for any changes from one training run to the next.
"This is another reason why the time trial is helpful", said Dodds. "It [is] not important that the maths is perfect on this, because the maths will fail to include personal stress loads, quality of sleep, heat and environment".
You may find yourself "running by feel".
Running by feel—which becomes possible as you pay attention to your perceived effort—will help you know if your calculated race paces (or even casual running paces) are, in fact, optimal for you. If not, this could be a clue that you need to tweak your goal race pace or goal casual pace.
"Always start with effort, because effort guides the purpose of a run—and the numbers will follow", said Bennett. "Let the numbers follow the effort and the purpose".
A small-scale study in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Exercise Science suggests running by feel can help determine your go-to optimal paces. In the study, runners were given external feedback—including being given no pace or even being told a slower pace than they were running—to see if it affected their self-selected running pace or exercise intensity (in other words, running by feel).
Despite a mix of no feedback, accurate feedback and inaccurate feedback from researchers, and having the treadmill displays covered, participants ended up naturally adjusting to (and maintaining) a pace that was near or spot on with their self-selected running pace for four different, 30-minute treadmill runs.
Keep track of your progress.
Determining your optimal running paces may become even more clear as you record your runs and workouts over the course of several weeks. Bennett said he recommends keeping a training log or running diary in order to see the bigger picture, and encourages you to think of a training cycle as a story.
"If you look at it that way, you should learn from every single training session", he said. "This is what I worked on, this is what worked well, this is what didn't work well, [and] I learned that I shouldn't be doing long runs after a speed run. This pace seems to make sense, that pace is getting a little bit quicker—which it should".
He also noted that it's likely these paces will begin to feel easier as your training progresses, which can alter your perceived effort a bit. And for more expert-backed advice, make sure you download the Nike Run Club App!
Words by Ashley Lauretta