How to Pace during Speed Workouts

How to Effectively Pace Yourself during Speed Workouts

Whether you prefer short and fast repeats on the track or steady tempo runs, pacing a speed workout can feel intimidating. How can you hold the prescribed pace without inevitably slowing down at the end? The fear of bonking then takes over and your confidence in your abilities wavers. Your workout may be less productive if you flag by the end. However, you do not need to suffer in speed workouts. You can learn how to successfully pace during speed workouts so that you feel strong and have a productive workout.

Even if you have repeatedly slowed down in interval workouts (haven’t we all at some point?), you do not have to dismiss yourself as a poor pacer or give into anxiety when a challenging workout appears on your training plan. While every runner has unique strengths, my hope for today’s post is that it can provide some guidance for how to pace during speed workouts so you run consistent splits – if not negative splits – and are able to accomplish those hard workouts and build up your confidence in your ability as a runner.

Why Proper Pacing Matters

Speed workouts and tempo runs are not time trials. The pace and perceived effort of a 4-mile tempo run or mile repeats matters – if you run the workout too hard, you miss the benefits and increase your risk of overtraining and injury. Even if you could run your 3-mile tempo run at 5K pace, doesn’t mean you should – at that point, it’s practically a 5K race. Running workouts too hard, too often compromises your training and creates a quick path to burnout or injury. 

How to Pace During Speed Workouts

This approach is how I coach my runners: a focus on staying in control and feeling smooth throughout a majority of the repeats. Very rarely should you finish a workout feeling depleted. Instead, you should feel as if you could do one or two more reps, or another mile at tempo effort. 

Warm up before running fast.

A full-length warm-up will aid in pacing during your speed workout, along with preventing injury. Run at an easy effort for 1-2 miles and then perform some dynamic stretches and drills. A warm-up brings more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles and joints, preparing you to then increase your speed without feeling too stiff or winded. If you are short on time, even 5-10 minutes of easy running can make a huge difference!

Be honest about the appropriate effort/pace.

One of the biggest mistakes? Running too hard for the purpose of the workout. Remember – faster workouts are not better workouts. If you repeatedly struggle to finish intervals or flag on a tempo run, you may be running too hard.

Be honest with yourself about your effort. A tempo run should feel comfortably hard, about a 6-7 out of 10. For intervals, depending on the type, your effort should feel like an 8-9 out of 10. If you are huffing and puffing early on, be deliberate about scaling back your pace appropriately.

Leave reps in reserve.

Very few workouts should be depleting. No workout is a time trial or race. You may complete some very challenging workouts at the peak of race-specific training (such as 20 miles with the last 10 at marathon pace) that leave you feeling wiped. However, a majority of workouts in training should feel manageable.

Approach your pacing in most workouts so that you have a few reps in reserve. For example, you should finish a majority of interval workouts feeling like you could do one or two reps. In most tempo runs, you should feel like you could keep going for 5-10 more minutes at that effort.

Set your watch to show lap pace, not instant pace.

Especially if you are running off the track, your instant pace will vary throughout an interval. Tree cover, terrain, wind, and other factors can affect what the watch reads as your instant pace. You do not want to be speeding up and slowing down based on a wrong reading because you went under some tree cover – you want to run a steady effort throughout each interval. Save yourself the stress and do not look at your instant pace during the run. If your GPS watch or app has the option, set it to show lap pace, not instant pace.

Even better – stop staring at your GPS! Obsessing too much over pace will prevent you from getting into a steady effort. Checking your watch every couple steps can throw off your form, disrupt your ability to monitor your perceive effort, and stress you out – none of which are conducive to consistent pacing.

Stay in control during the first interval.

Starting out too fast is all too easy – you’re warmed up and ready to go. However, if you run too fast on your first interval, you will likely slow down as the workout progresses. Whether you are running at tempo pace or 5K pace, your muscles will fatigue and your breathing will get out of control as your body tries to transport enough oxygen if you start out too fast. You will likely be able to complete the workout, but seeing your paces slow down can feel defeating. Beyond that, you will establish bad pacing habits for race day – when starting out too fast can cost you your goal.

Control is key in this first interval. Do not let yourself go faster than your goal pace – hold back if you usually start out too fast. Let yourself get a feel for how your pace should feel, while also preventing going out too far, fatiguing your muscles, and slowing down with each interval.  If you are going to monitor your pace at all during a speed workout, do so during the first interval to help you stay on pace.

Focus on your perceived effort for the remaining intervals.

After the first interval, you know how the effort should feel for the workout in the conditions of the day. Focus on your breathing and your perceived effort. As you progress, the intervals will get harder, so run the second half of the intervals at a slightly harder effort than the first half – this should help you stay on pace, if not run faster than you did at the start.

Slow down for your recovery intervals.

Pacing does not just matter on the hard intervals; how you pace the recovery intervals can affect how strong you stay through the second half of the workout. Slow down as much as you need to steady your breathing during these intervals, regardless of what your watch reads. It’s okay to slow down by two or three minutes per mile – the focus isn’t on your speed, but how well you are recovering before the next hard interval.

Do you struggle with pacing in your workouts?
What other tips would you add for how to pace during speed workouts? 

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25 Responses

  1. Great tips! I struggle with going out either too fast or too slow during the first interval. It can be hard to settle into a good pace! I have also found it really helps to make those recovery intervals easy. Otherwise it will be really hard to complete the planned workout!

  2. Awesome tips! I like the one about changing your watch to lap pace. I know I’ve kept min on instant pace at times and I become so focused on what the number is and trying to keep it just right that I usually go out too fast.

  3. These are awesome tips! In the past I would skip the warm-up but I know that’s so bad. I always try to make time for a dynamic warm up because I know it’s so important.

  4. GREAT post! I personally have no issue pacing during my speed work, but I know a ton of people who do. I think what saves me is that I DO slow down my recovery period. I try to encourage my runners to do the same!

  5. So smart to not look at the pace until the interval is over! I find my body is really good now at tuning into the pace it can go for that day at that distance. On warm days or routes with hills, it’s slower. On cool days or at the track, it’s faster. It takes lots of practice but our legs get good at figuring that out and the watch only throws me off!

  6. You explain this so well! Thank you! I do not do a lot of “targeted pace work” because staring at my watch (and trying to actually read it) while running is SO annoying. I know I am missing out on a big piece of the (running) puzzle, but the frustration from the watch keeps me away.

    1. Thank you! If the watch is frustrating, you should try some fartlek style runs (if you’re not already doing them). Setting an interval timer so you don’t have to stare at the clock and then going by effort can give just as good of a speed workout as something focused on pace and distance!

  7. While I do think some of my internal pacing practice has improved, I feel that it still needs work. These are great tips! Aaannnndddd…..I have never thought of turning my watch to lap pace vs instant pace. Might have to test that out today!

    1. Thank you! Your pacing has improved a lot this year! Definitely try the lap pace tip… especially if you program the workouts in and the watch displays each interval as it’s own lap, the number remains so much more stable.

  8. When I start a new training plan my interval paces tend to be all over the place – I think I forget what certain paces feel like when I’m not running them consistently. Then my paces become more consistent as training progresses. For me, how well I can pace my intervals tends to be a good indicator of how training is going overall.

  9. Pacing during speed workouts is definitely tough, especially for that first interval! I’ve definitely learned that I need to slow it down a bit that first round and then go from there! But with more practice, it gets easier to get a good feel!

  10. That was really helpful. I tend to do a lot of my temp runs/speed workouts on the treadmill, because I feel like I am forced to hold a certain pace (and maybe learn what that feels like? Although that doesn’t always seem to work out… sometimes a 9:30-mile seems fast, sometimes it feels slow).

  11. I really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us. I feel strongly that love and read more on this topic. I have spent a lot of my spare time reading your content. Thank you a lot.

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