Running is simple, but training is not always. Once you start training for performance, running paces become more nuanced than “hard” and “easy.” A whole range of running paces is utilized in training. This article will delve into the variety of training paces often used in running.
Think of training paces for running as a spectrum. While some zones may be less effective than others (lactate threshold training, for example, yields significant benefits for long-distance runners), no training zone is “junk” when utilized in an appropriate volume and frequency.
Recovery runs may be the most under-appreciated training zone. Many recreational runners struggle enough to slow down on their easy days, much less embrace the true shuffle of a recovery run. These runs feel barely faster than a walk and are used the day after a hard workout or long run. In terms of paces, these are usually 2+ minutes per mile slower than marathon or half marathon pace, although effort should be the primary guide. Generally, you should finish feeling better than when you started.
Sub-Aerobic Threshold (Easy Pace)
Out of any of the training paces, easy pace is the most valuable training pace. You will spend the majority of your training time in this zone.
What exactly is easy pace? It is below your aerobic threshold – which means it is comfortable enough that you can carry on a conversation. No training partner? Try breathing through your nose for 20-30 seconds. An easy run is roughly an RPE of 3-4 out of 10.
Generally speaking, the fitter the runner, the slower their easy pace is in relation to their other training paces. While it sounds counterintuitive, the larger the aerobic base you have, the higher aerobic capacity you have. A novice runner may only have one minute per mile difference between their easy pace and lactate threshold, while an elite runs their easy runs a two to three minutes per mile slower than their lactate threshold.
Aerobic threshold is the intensity at which energy production switches from aerobic metabolism of primarily fat to aerobic metabolism of primarily carbohydrates. Ventilatory rate increases, as does lactate production. Anything below the aerobic threshold is easy; once you cross it, you enter into “moderate to hard” training zones. Aerobic threshold pace will feel truly moderate in terms of effort.
Some dismiss the value of aerobic threshold training, viewing it as less effective than training at lactate threshold or VO2max. However, for many ultra, marathon, and half marathon runners, aerobic threshold training prepares them for the mental, physiological, and metabolic demands of racing. It is also beneficial during base building, as it produces less fatigue than higher intensities when done in appropriate doses.
This intensity correlates approximately with somewhere between half marathon and marathon effort. It is roughly the pace you could maintain for a 2.5-3 hour race. In terms of RPE, this feels only slightly harder than an easy run – think a 5 out of 10 effort.
First, let’s be clear about what lactate is. Lactate itself does not make your muscles burn (that’s the hydrogen ions) nor does it make you sore the next day.
Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body produces more lactate than it can clear out. The waste products that accompany lactate production accumulate in your blood. By training at this point, you can raise your lactate threshold – which allows you to race faster before you fatigue. This is one of the most valuable training zones for a long-distance runner, although you should not emphasize it at the neglect of others.
Longer time spent at LT is not better! Since this is hour race effort, doing an 8 mile tempo run is a quick recipe for overtraining. Aim for 20-45 minutes total at tempo pace. You can train at your LT through either intervals (especially early in the season) or continuous tempo runs.
Lactate threshold is approximately your 60-min race pace, with an RPE of 6-7 out of 10. For some athletes this is 10K pace, for others 15K, and for elites often close to half marathon pace. You really want to focus on the hour-race effort aspect here; if 40 minute 10K runner were to run a tempo run at 10K pace, they would be running too fast for the purpose of the workout. You should still be able to talk in short phrases, but not with the ease that you could at recovery, easy, or AeT paces.
Both research and practice are demonstrating the value of critical velocity training for long-distance runners. You recruit fast-twitch muscles but do not accrue as much fatigue or muscle damage as you would in a VO2max workout. Critical velocity is roughly 30-40 minute race pace: faster than lactate threshold, but not as grueling as a traditional interval effort. In terms of RPE, this is approximately a 7-8 out of 10 – hard, but also smooth and relatively sustainable for the duration.
Some coaches do not use this training pace. Others heavily favor it for workouts such as cruise intervals. However, training somewhere between LT and 5k pace is beneficial for long-distance runners. In particular, 10k and half marathoners benefit from it (due to specificity) and marathoners can use it for speedwork without excessive fatigue. Typically, you want to cap workout volume to 10-20 minutes of intervals, which are typically anywhere from 3-8 minutes in length.
Despite all the focus it receives, VO2max is not a significant indicator of performance in long distance runners. In fact, it does not always change with training, even as your fitness improves (and no matter what your Garmin tells you). (For more on this, read Steve Magness’ brilliant take on the Fallacy of VO2max.)
VO2max (also called interval pace by Daniels et al) equates to approximately 10-15 minute race pace. This is 5K pace for high-level elites, but closer to 3K pace for most recreational athletes. These are an RPE of 8-9 out of 10.
More than improving your VO2max, you want to train your velocity at VO2max (vVO2). In order to do so, you want to run shorter intervals (1-3 minutes) at VO2max, versus longer intervals. (Long VO2max intervals of 3-5 minutes do have their place, but that is best reserved for specific training for distances such as the 5K). Longer intervals at VO2max often lead to break down in form and accumulation of excessive amounts of lactate. Once that happens, you are not improving your velocity (economy). Plus, as recent research shows, shorter intervals are more beneficial for long-distance running performance than longer intervals.
Also called rep pace by Dr. Daniels, this zone develops top-end speed. The focus here is running fast, not hard, since the goal is to develop running economy. Typical workouts are hill sprints, strides, and up to 200-m repeats. For most runners, this is mile race pace or what you could sustain for 5-8 minutes.
For long-distance runners, very small doses of anaerobic pace (20 seconds or less) offer tremendous benefits. Strides are short enough to not accumulate fatigue – you actually will not go fully anaerobic for the duration – while still offering the leg speed benefits. RPE is 8-9 out of 10 on these, in part due to their very short duration.
Race Specific Paces
Beyond these paces, goal race pace will be a focus in race specific training (6-12 weeks before a goal race). For example, if you are training for half marathon performance, you want to practice half marathon pace before race day.
Examples of Race Specific Paces:
- 50K pace, which may be just below AeT but slightly harder than normal easy pace (moderate).
- Half marathon pace, which often falls between LT and AeT pace for most runners (moderately hard).
- 5K pace, which often falls between CV and VO2max for many runners (hard).
Think Race Duration, Not Race Distance
With the exception of race-specific goal paces, you will notice that these paces are based on time – not distance. For example, 60-min race pace (LT) would be roughly 10K pace for some runners, 15k pace for others, and close to half marathon pace for elites. If you were to simply prescribe 10K pace, it would be critical velocity for some and LT for others – which are vastly different workouts in terms of structure.
What Do These Training Paces Actually Look Like?
Let’s take an example of a 3:30 marathon/1:39 half-marathoner:
- Recovery: slower than a 10:00/mile
- Easy: 9:00-10:00/mile
- Aerobic Threshold: 7:50-8:10/mile
- Half Marathon: 7:40-7:45/mile
- Lactate Threshold: 7:30-7:35/mile
- Critical Velocity: 7:15-7:20/mile
- 5K: 7:05/mile
- Interval/VO2max: 6:55-7:00/mile
- Speed/Sprint: 6:10-6:30/mile
Now, that does not mean if you run 7:40 on a threshold pace run that your workout is worthless! Always think of the RPE and race effort for each zone, and focus on those. So many external variables affect pace that paces are more of a guideline than a strict rule. When in doubt, veer slightly slower and more controlled for your running paces; faster workouts are not better workouts.
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What’s your favorite training intensity to run at?