Running Paces for Faster, Stronger Finishes

Learn the basics of various running paces to improve fitness and achieve race goals.

woman running in race

I am in pursuit of a faster 5K and hope to run a sub-26 minute race in the next month or so. I know that is not lightning fast but I am excited about the prospect of accomplishing steady improvements at any age (including over 50!).

After learning how to put a training program together, I am eager to test my plan and see how my body responds. Trying to get to the next level reminds me of various breakthroughs in my quest to become faster and stronger. Here are a few memorable lessons that have helped me along:

Go the distance (any distance)

When I was in high school, trying to become a distance runner after years of competitive swimming, my track coach gave me this tip: get miles in however you can, even walking between running breaks.

As a teen, I took his advice to the extreme, alternating running and walking for miles at a time over school breaks. Nowadays, most people are familiar with run/walk training programs. Back in the 1970s, though, most people either ran or walked but not both. (See Jeff Galloway’s walk/run programs for the 5K or marathon distance.)

This go-the-distance approach 1) instills discipline (as mentioned in small steps); 2) acclimates your body (and mind) to running; 3) gives you a (walking) break that allows you to recover aerobically (that is, catch your breath and relieve the lactic acid build-up that causes soreness and tiredness) before pushing along more.

You might think that walking instead of running is the second-best thing to do. But if you are beginning or moving to a more demanding distance, then the run-walk is a respectable path to the next level of fitness.

Run at a decent pace while training

The next big leap in my running strength and speed came at the suggestion of a friend, who recommended that I buy a GPS running device. At a local race, I explained to her that I had difficulty pushing myself while training. As a result, I trained well enough to run a decent 10-minute mile during a 5K but didn’t know how to get much faster.

She pointed out that I should learn to go at a faster pace on solo runs. Her technique involved using a Garmin Forerunner that tracked her pace, along with her distance. I bought one of these watches as a Christmas gift to myself. It took a while to learn to use the device but I steadily made progress in both my technical savvy and my training paces.

There are a bunch of features on the Garmin but I typically focus on just a few. Initially, I noted my heart rate and its response to various speeds. Eventually, I grew tired of paying attention to that information and concentrated on running at a decent clip for most runs and faster (all-out) paces for some workouts.

During races, I would track my pace, reigning myself in when I started too fast and pushing myself when I started slowing down. As a result, I was able to trim 4-5 minutes off my 5K time.

Use a variety of paces to accomplish running goals

As pleased as I have been with my 27-minute 5Ks (which sometimes put me in the top 3 of my age group), I felt that I didn’t have an underlying strength to go with the quicker pace. For example, sprinting to the finish line seemed impossible. Longer distances were doable but not much fun.

At first, I attributed these problems to the infrequency of my runs (I usually ran 2-3 times each week and rode my bike 1-2 times per week). To a certain extent, the greater frequency would have helped. But I discovered that I needed to understand various running paces and how to use them in a running program. There are additional nuances to these types of paces but here are the basic types to integrate into a training plan:

  • Conversation Pace. This pace is for long runs at a speed you can maintain over an extended period of time; you’ll feel challenged but not overwhelmed, and you’ll be able to gradually grow the distance. As its name indicates, you should be able to hold a conversation at this pace (or sing to yourself, if you are alone!). Most training should be done at this pace.
  • Tempo. A tempo pace is quicker than the conversation but still below your targeted racing pace. After doing an easy run to warm up, you’ll run this speed for relatively short distances (a few miles) to build strength.
  • Intervals. An interval pace generally references speed work, done repeatedly for shorter distances with a rest break in between efforts. There are long intervals, involving a quick pace for a half-mile or mile, and short intervals, leaning toward an all-out pace for a quarter-mile or so.

The specific pace, whether it’s 10:30 per mile for conversation pace, 8:00 per mile for tempo, and 7:15 per mile for intervals, depends on the runner’s capabilities. But the more you can follow a specific pace based on your capabilities for each type of run, the better you can prepare yourself for a race. As you improve, adjust the paces to faster miles per minute.

Thinking back to my days as a swimmer, I realize that there is a training process that breaks down the body before rebuilding its strength and speed. In the middle of a season, I’d feel slow and sluggish (though if I felt too fatigued, I may need to back off the intensity). But as I taper (lessen the workout load, particularly before races), I’d emerge stronger and faster.

Looking back, I can see that these running tips helped transform my fitness level and performance. I’ll let you know how my next race turns out. Update: I ran the Mission 5K in 25:42 in August 2014, achieving my goal of a sub-26 minute 5K and setting a new personal record.

Through this process, I’ve learned that friends can help me accomplish my goals, just as I can help others with theirs. Being willing to accept instruction, even as an adult, and trying new ways of training helped me to get better and gain insights into achieving goals.

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