Everything to Know About Running Pace Training

Figuring out your ideal race pace can lead to your best performance.


Whether you run in the treadmill,  work with a coach, or run with a group, you will hear a lot of discussion about both training pace and race pace. Typically, when you sign up for a race, you even have to choose your predicted pace.

Running pace training is everywhere when it comes to the sport, because it can help you dial in your workouts — helping you hit the right intensities and speeds — and it can make you faster. If you’re confused about what paces you should hit in workouts or goal paces to set for race day, this guide to pace training helps clear up the confusion so you can uncover your best performances.

What is pace training and race pace?
Race pace, at its most literal, is the actual pace you can hold for a specific race. For example, your pace for a 5K will be faster than a marathon because it’s a lot shorter than 42.2K.

Training using a variety of race paces is essentially interval training. In a treadmill class or when following a race training plan, coaches may take you through intervals that alternate efforts. For example, you might run your mile pace, 5K pace, 10K pace, half marathon pace, and marathon pace — all within one workout.

If you don’t have PBs in all those distances, think about it as a way to gauge effort level — like running by perceived effort, or RPE, or even heart rate training. Your effort will be lowest for marathon pace and hardest for kilometre pace.

Why does running pace training matter?
Race pace training — and interval training in general — matters because you can’t always run at a steady state. Also, understanding how to pace your training, as well as your race, could determine how well you perform during a race, according to 2018 research published in the Journal of Sports Analytics. According to the study, starting or finishing a race too fast can actually result in slower finish times. Learning how to pace your race more effectively, which a runner would do during their training, can ultimately give you a faster race time.

“The more you get used to the feeling of a certain pace, the more likely you’re going to be successful at those race distances,” says Amanda Nurse, running coach with Wellness in Motion, based in Boston. Running shorter distances fast also helps up your speed for longer distances — that’s why a marathoner, for example, may do 400-metre repeats at a minute faster than their goal marathon pace.

“The only way to get faster in the long run is by first being able to run a faster pace in small bites,” says Matthew Meyer, a certified trainer and run coach based in Colorado. “From those small blocks, you build bigger blocks.” Translation: You start with 30- or 60-second efforts at a fast pace, and eventually start increasing the length of those intervals as you get more comfortable at that pace.

How do you find your running paces for training?
There are multiple ways to figure out your race pace, or paces, if you compete in various distances. One of the easiest ways for non-competitive runners to gauge effort is by the talk test, or how breathless you are at a certain pace.

If you wear an activity tracker or heart rate monitor, you can also go by heart rate zones, based on percentages of your max heart rate.

If you prefer being low-tech, you can self-assess your rate of perceived exertion, ranking your effort level on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being no effort and 10 being all out).

Here’s how some paces break down:

Kilometre: This is the hardest, high-intensity pace because you can only hold it for one hard kilometre. It’s a 9 or a 10 RPE during which your heart rate is about 95 percent of your max. This is an all-out, leave it all on the table, full-gas, sprint pace.

5K: “This is a high-intensity pace,” says Nurse, or an 8 or 9 RPE. If you go by conversational pace, you should not be able to talk, she adds — in fact, you should be breathless by the end of the effort. During a 5K effort, your heart rate should be at 85 to 95 percent of your max. “This isn’t a sprint, but the longer you’re there, the more it feels like a sprint,” says Meyer. If you can’t hold a 5K pace for a minute, you’re running too quick, he adds.

10K: Your 10K pace is going to be 10 to 20 seconds slower than your 5K pace, says Nurse. “It’s an aggressive pace — you might feel good at the start, but it’s going to feel more challenging the longer you hold on,” says Meyer. You may be able to eke out a word or two to your neighbour, but your breath is pretty laboured. You should be running at around 80 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, and it’ll feel like an 8 out of 10 RPE.

Half marathon: “Half marathon pace is essentially a tempo effort,” says Nurse, or 25 to 30 seconds per kilometre slower than your 5K pace. Your breathing should be less laboured here, enough that you may be able to get out a sentence or two at a time, but you should be working at about 70 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, or a 7.5 out of 10 RPE, says Meyer. “Half marathon pace is where it starts to get challenging, but you can definitely sustain it,” he adds.

Marathon: Marathon pace is aerobic, says Meyer — anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate, or a 6 out of 10 RPE. “You’re definitely not huffing and puffing; it’s challenging, but overall its smooth, and you could be here for a while,” he says. If you’ve run a half marathon, your marathon time would be double that plus seven minutes, says Nurse. To figure out your marathon kilometre pace, convert that finish time to minutes and divide by 42.2.

Should you fib your race paces?
During short efforts, it’s easy to run faster than you might be able to sustain for an actual race. There’s a difference between current race pace and goal race pace. “If you were to go out and race today, that’s your current race pace,” says Meyer.

Let’s say you know you can run 5.30 pace for a 10K, but during a three-minute effort on a treadmill, you are able to run at 5:15 pace, what pace should you report when you sign up for a race? “There’s nothing wrong with shooting a little higher,” says Meyer. “It’s okay to push that limit — as long as you’re not totally overreaching — because that’s how you’re going to eventually improve your current 10K pace.”

That doesn’t mean you should always try to push your pace when you train. “For at least the first few weeks of a training cycle, when you might not be able to hit your goal race pace, you want to start out conservatively at your current race paces so you can build confidence and endurance at longer intervals at your current ability,” explains Nurse.

However, “you can do a shorter interval workout early on in your training at faster paces to build your anaerobic capacity and increase your VO2 max. Over time, you’ll be able to sustain those pieces for longer and enter into your goal race paces more effortlessly,” she adds.

The Best Workout for Practicing Running Pace Training
“Classic ladder work is a great way to work through the paces — the shorter the effort, the faster you can work,” says Meyer. This workout is 34 minutes, although with warm-up and cool-down, you’ve got a solid 53-minute interval run. Each interval is given in minutes.

  • 10:00 Easy Warmup
  • 4:00 @ Goal Marathon Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 3:00 @ Goal Half Marathon Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 2:00 @ Goal 10K Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 1:00 @ Goal 5K Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 4:00 @ Goal Marathon Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 3:00 @ Goal Half Marathon Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 2:00 @ Goal 10K Pace
  • 2:00 Recovery
  • 1:00 @ Goal 5K Pace
  • 10:00 Cooldown

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