Your Other Runs Are Probably Too Hard
For the average runner—running to stay fit, preparing for a triathlon or doing the occasional 5K or 10K—three runs a week is probably the norm and might be enough to show some good improvement. Especially if done consistently, progressively and the right way. For runners or triathletes on the three to four runs a week plan I generally prescribe one structured track or interval workout a week, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday, and that's pretty much the only “hard” running of the week. So how do you work out what pace the “other” running should be? That is, your easy runs, warm ups, long runs and recovery between intervals.
The other runs should be the bulk of your program and the most common error is to run at too hard or fast a pace. Why is that a bad thing? I won’t go into the detail in this blog on the science suffice to say that there are physiological adaptations that occur at this slower pace that don’t happen unless it’s below ventilatory threshold. This pace, at its most basic definition, can be identified by the “talk test” where you can comfortably carry out a conversation while running. And it’s probably a slower pace than you think.
You can get a good enough stab at where it’s at using the Hanson Race Equivalency Calculator. Plug in a recent race time and it’ll give you the pace you should be running your “Easy” runs as well as your “Speed” runs (which is what I’m talking about with the interval training). Remember, this calculates your training pace for a race that was probably on a flat course on a sealed surface. So you can slow it down even more when training on trails or hills.
Now you’ll notice there’s a pace range in there that I’m hardly ever proscribing. And that range generally includes your target race pace for 5K to half marathons. This is where it’s sometimes hard to get people to listen to me. Surely the best chance I have of running x min/mile pace in a race is to do it as often as I can in training? No, while that sounds like it could be right, that’s not actually how it works. Although I’ve been structuring my plans this way for years, this method was recently given the sexy name “polarized training”. There’s an entertaining and accessible Ted Talk on the science behind it and the research keeps stacking up over the years that it’s the way to go for both elite and recreational athletes.
I’ve see it work in practice too. I have an athlete at the moment who runs low 7min/mi for her races but she almost NEVER runs at that pace during training. It’s either 9min/mi for long and easy runs and low 6 min/mi pace for intervals. This doesn’t prevent her from running perfectly paced half marathons at a pace she’s practiced very rarely in training. The point is the body’s engine has been built to execute and sustain that pace when it's rested and a max effort is called upon.
Still need convincing that you need to slow down? Western runners who go over to Kenya are often surprised that they can keep up with athletes in training who generally smoke them at races. They often run 8 min/mi pace when they can race at 5min/mi or faster. Take a look at the shuffle of these Kenyans as they warm up or recover from speed work.
Now how often are you, the 9 min/mi person, running 11-12 min/mi? It might feel ridiculous to run that slow when you're capable of much faster but it’s doing you good and will leave you fresh enough to eventually add more miles to your program or go harder at your next speed workout. You never know, you might even approach your running with a bit less trepidation if you know you’re getting as much or more benefit from a social jog than red-lining every time you step out the door.