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We work on the basis of five main training paces: easy, sub-threshold, threshold/tempo, interval/VO2 max, and speed endurance.
Your race pace - which may or may not fall into the range of one of these five paces - is also important. And additionally, all runners should work on basic speed, which for distance runners is effectively achieved by regularly including strides in your training.
An easy running pace is one that requires little effort. Easy running shouldn't feel too demanding. A good guide that you're in the correct zone is that you are able to hold a conversation whilst running.
Easy runs are sometimes referred to as recovery runs, steady runs, conversational-paced runs, aerobic runs, or low-effort runs.
This is the pace at which the bulk of your training should take place, including most long runs. It's also a suitable pace for the beginning of warm ups and for cool downs.
There are many medium- and long-term benefits to be gained from easy running, including building robustness and thus injury-proofing yourself, increased vascularisation so that oxygen is better able to reach muscle cells, strengthening of cardiac muscle, and skeletal muscle fibre adaptations such as an increase in the number of mitochondria (energy-producing organelles within muscle cells), and better muscle fibre recruitment resulting in improved running economy.
The range of suitable paces is quite wide. Recovery runs the day after hard sessions should be done at the slower end; the faster end is suitable for shorter easy runs, or for when you're feeling particularly energetic and well-rested.
This range covers what you could probably maintain for two to two and a half hours. It shouldn't feel too demanding, but you should feel as though the pace is close to shifting into harder territory. Conversation should still be possible, but you'll prefer to stick to shorter sentences and feel as though you need to concentrate a little more on your running and maintaining pace.
For some runners this pace will be close to marathon pace, and some coaches, including Jack Daniels, include a "marathon pace" or "M pace" in their categorisations. But since intensity is a function of time, we feel it's more useful to think in terms of "sub-threshold" or "high aerobic". Confusingly, some runners refer to these runs as "steady", while others consider "steady" to mean easy-paced (see above).
Many coaches would place these paces into the "easy" category, but it can be useful to distinguish between the two, since these paces certainly feel more demanding. Certainly, a long run for many runners can exceed the maximum time it's possible to maintain these paces.
It's not absolutely essential to warm up for runs at these intensities, but five to ten minutes in the easy range is recommended before shifting gear to sub-threshold, and an easier five minutes at the end can help cool down.
Longer runs of 60-90 minutes at this pace are excellent for marathon training.
These are the paces you can maintain for roughly 45 to 75 minutes.
Many runners refer to this intensity as "tempo". However, since the term tempo has a range of uses, "threshold" or "anaerobic threshold" are more suitable terms and more descriptive.
20-30 minutes at threshold pace (following a warm up) provides a good time-efficient workout.
Coach Jack Daniels developed the idea of "cruise intervals". These are repetitions carried out at threshold pace with relatively short recoveries (usually 1-2 minutes). The idea is that by dividing a threshold run into sections with short recoveries, you can achieve the same benefits as a continuous run of the same overall distance, but with less difficulty.
These are the paces you could maintain for approximately 8 to 15 minutes.
Interval training is often referred to as "speed training" by distance runners. However, it's important to distinguish between this type of session and sessions that actually develop speed. While it's true that interval/VO2 Max sessions are performed at a pace typically faster than a distance runner's other training, this pace is still quite a bit slower than top speed.
Training at these paces is perfect for improving your VO2 Max. Bear in mind that sessions including repetitions at this pace are tough.
As a general guide, the slower pace is suitable for repetitions between 3 and 6 minutes, and the faster pace is suitable for repetitions between 1 and 4 minutes.
This pace is approximately what you could expect to maintain for two to four minutes.
Some distance runners may find these paces challenging, or even impossible, to hit. Speed tends to decline more quickly and more drastically than endurance as we get older, so there may be some difference in how older runners perceive these sessions compared to younger runners. If you find yourself struggling with the prescribed paces, then simply concern yourself with running at any pace that feels "fast".
This is simply the pace required to run the distance and time entered.
It's really important to include sessions at race pace, but this is often overlooked by many runners. Biomechanics, muscle recruitment, energy use, coordination, and a range of other factors are all unique to a particular pace. Runners typically focus on training energy systems such as VO2 max and anaerobic threshold, and that should be the main focus over the longer term, but those runners who don't incorporate race pace training into their plan are missing a trick.
Your goal for race pace sessions is essentially to spend lots of time running at race pace. These don't necessarily need to be tough sessions. For example, an hour of running alternating five minutes at easy pace and five minutes at half marathon pace should not be challenging, but will provide 30 minutes of race pace practice.
This is running performed at, or close to, your maximum speed. While this type of running isn't of particular importance to distance runners, there are several benefits to be enjoyed from including basic speed in at least some of your sessions.
See our article on strides for a comprehensive review of the benefits of strides and tips on how to incorporate them into your training.
Paces for hills and hilly runs
Running by paces is all very well, but hills upset our careful calculations. On gentle hills you can use your judgement and target the slower end of the range for uphill running and the faster end of the range for downhill running. For steeper hills it's best just to run by effort.
You'll notice that the pace ranges given do not cover all possible paces from the slow end of "easy/long" to the fast end of "speed endurance". That's not to say that these paces can't be useful. Certainly, including a wide range of paces in your training can be beneficial, and there will be overlap in the energy systems that are trained by any type of running. However, you tend to get more out of training if you focus on one thing at a time, so the majority of your training should be done withing the prescribed ranges, including your race pace(s).