Most runners are essentially joggers. They do all of their runs at the same, steady, moderate pace. They might go a bit slower on their longest runs than they do on their shortest ones, and a bit faster on their best days than they do on their worst days, but they make no conscious effort to vary the pace of their training.
And that’s fine, as long as it works in relation to your goals and preferences. Specifically, if you enjoy jogging and if improving your race times is not especially important to you, then by all means, keep on jogging. However, if running at the same, steady, moderate pace all the time gets to be a little too monotonous for you, and/or you’re willing to put more effort into improving your performance, then you should incorporate pace variation into your training.
Even the most highly competitive runners jog most of the time. Easy running is great because the more of it you do, the fitter you get, and because it’s not terribly taxing you can do a lot of it. Faster running is more taxing, so it can only be done in small amounts. But a little goes a long way, especially when faster running is layered on top of a high volume of easy running.
Most competitive runners do two faster workouts per week. Some also add a small amount of faster running to a third workout—for example, a few wind sprints at the end of an easy run. This weekly schedule has become standard because it works better than any alternative for the majority of runners. If they do less, they don’t get as fast or race as well; if they do more, they burn out or get injured.
All fast running is not the same. There are a few speeds exceeding the natural jogging pace that competitive runners routinely hit in their training. It’s good to hit them all because each contributes to fitness development in a slightly different way than the others.
What’s often referred to as “tempo” pace is only moderately faster than your natural jogging pace. To find it, start at a jog and imagine shifting one gear up, pushing yourself just a little but remaining comfortable.
The next faster pace is known as threshold pace. This is the fastest pace at which you can remain fully in control of your breathing. At your threshold pace you’re breathing deeply, but not straining to get enough oxygen. For highly trained runners, threshold pace can be sustained for about one hour in race conditions. For beginners, it’s closer to a 30-minute maximum pace.
Faster still is VO2max pace. This is the pace at which you breathe as hard as you can. Actually, it’s the slowest pace at which you breathe as hard as you can. For most of us, it corresponds to the fastest speed we can sustain for six to 10 minutes. It’s very uncomfortable, but you can get used to it. VO2max running is almost always done in interval format. So, instead of going out and running six or seven minutes straight at this pace, at the end of which you’re completely exhausted, you might run 5 x 3:00 at VO2max pace with a 3:00 rest interval of easy jogging after each segment. The rationale here is that you can do a much greater total volume of VO2max pace running if you break it up into intervals than you can if you do one block straight to exhaustion.
Your next gear has no conventional name other than “speed”. It’s really a range of speeds faster than VO2max pace and slower than a full sprint. Runners usually incorporate speed work into their training in the form of intervals ranging between 200 and 400 meters in distance, or between 30 and 80 seconds in duration. For example, Nike coach Alberto Salazar like to have his athletes run 7 x 300 meters with jogging recoveries after each interval.
The fastest training pace is a full sprint—the fastest speed you can sustain for no more than 20 seconds. Even most competitive runners do no real sprinting, but they should, because it’s a terrific power builder and it’s fun.
The title of this article is, “How Fast Should You Run?” Perhaps you’ve noticed that I still haven’t answered this question. I’ve made the case for running at a variety of speeds, but what you need to know is exactly how fast you should run your threshold workouts, your VO2max intervals, and so forth.
There are two complementary ways to find the right pace for each workout. The first is to let the workout itself guide you. For example, an appropriate threshold workout for many runners consists of 20 minutes at threshold pace between a jogging warmup and a jogging cooldown. Those 20 minutes should feel challenging but not exhausting. Your breathing should be heavy but controlled. If you run this workout using these guidelines and monitor your pace as you go, then whatever pace you wind up running is your current threshold pace. You can then use that numerical information to help guide future threshold efforts. Note that this pace will improve over time as you get fitter.
There are also various systems that prescribe appropriate target paces for individual runners based on their current fitness level. These require that you enter a recent race time or estimated current race performance capacity. They then run a calculation and spit out target paces for various types of workouts. The best workout pace calculators are very reliable, but they should not be treated as gospel. You still need to listen to your body when running appropriately formatted workouts and either speed up from your target pace or slow down as necessary. My favorite workout pace calculator is that created by coach Greg McMillan (which you can check out here).
About The Author: Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.