Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 31 Jul 2005 08:18:24 -0400

Pick Your Pace

RUNNING COMMENTARY 582

My second Marathon Team of the year is well into its training now for the Portland Marathon. The questions that the first group asked are replaying regularly again.

Among the most popular requests is, "How fast should I train on the long runs?" My answer isn't the same one I would have given before working with Marathon Team One.

You could check what I said then. It's in Marathon & Beyond magazine for March-April 2005: "Run a minute or two per mile slower than projected marathon pace."

A runner named Rebecca from Team Two had heard similar advice. "I have read every book I can find about training," she said, "and there's something I don't understand. Why, as the books say, should the long run be so much slower than your pace for the marathon?

"I figured out that I could probably run a marathon in about 4:30 [10:20 pace], and so my long runs should be no faster than 11-minute miles. That feels excruciatingly slow."

Then she popped that big question: "What should the pace be for my long runs in preparation for the marathon?"

Rebecca didn't get the sound-bite answer she wanted. My explanation was multi-parted. The first part was that slower-than-race-pace training works best for faster runners who have higher racing gears available to them.

I could average 90 seconds per mile faster than training pace for my early marathons in the three-hour range because I'd go faster yet in shorter races. But when the marathon times later reached four hours or more, I'd lost the higher gears and now trained for and completed marathons at about the same pace.

My second answer to Rebecca addressed the common mistake of calculating bass-ackward. Runners set a marathon time goal, then try to train at that pace. It seldom fits them because the goal -- qualifying for Boston, breaking a round-number time -- has little to do with current fitness realities.

My advice: let the training pace set the marathon pace instead trying to work out the timing in reverse -- forcing a guesswork pace onto the training. And then let whatever happens happen on the long runs. The pace that feels right usually is.

I never suggested an exact training pace to anyone on Marathon Team One, but let it settle out naturally. The Team had its graduation day in June. All 16 of our group finished at Newport, Oregon -- in times starting at 3:26 and ranging far upward.

Two runners hit major walls that day for health reasons. The others averaged within 16 seconds per mile of their pace for the longest training runs. Three runners finished their marathons within two seconds of that pace.

For all but the fastest runners, this might be the best measure of marathon potential: continuing to the finish at the pace you've practiced. (This assumes that you never train the full 26 miles.)

As with any reliable gauge, this one isn't based on what you dream of maybe doing someday but instead on what you really have done lately. There are other good gauges, some that I've quoted for years plus one I just heard from a giant in marathon training theory. You can read about those in RC 583.

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