Goal Pacing for the Year Round Runner

A new reader sent this very interesting question: I train all year round, at a variety of paces, and throughout the year I run races, from 5Ks up to marathons. At the moment, for example, I’m planning to do a marathon in early November and a half-marathon 3 weeks later, and may well do a 10K race in mid-October as well. So, I’m not training for a specific race just at the moment, I’m training for a range of them, and will focus more closely on the individual race as the time approaches. So, what is my goal pace run now? I’m aiming for something inside 3:10 for the marathon, so goal pace runs for that would be 7-7:10 pace. But seen from the viewpoint of half-marathon training, that training run’s a ‘tweener’, isn’t it? So what’s your take on training paces for a mix of races, like I’m doing? – John

John, first your paces and times show you are doing some very good racing. Congrats! You are also like so many other runners who don’t just do one race or have only a couple in the year to focus on. And like most adult runners we don’t have traditional “track” or “cross-country” seasons to focus our training.

You are also hitting on the #1 reason why most age group runners never hit their true potential in any event. They do well at 5k and run a good race at 10 miles and then do their marathon and then jump in and run a “fun” mile on the track. They may or may not set PRs in any of those events.

Exploring your potential and pushing limits is done by focusing your training. You cannot be equally good as a 5k runner and marathoner.

Let’s take a lesson from the elite runners. How many milers or 5000 runners are running marathons? (If they do it’s only to explore their options in future racing.) On the other hand, almost all Olympic level marathoners did start racing at shorter distances and when they found out their 3:58 mile pace wasn’t fast enough to be a miler they moved up. Ditto for the 13:30 5K runner. Two points here:

  1. Runners get fastest at longer events by first optimizing their shorter races and then moving up.
  2. Runners get fastest at a single event by specializing.

I know in a practical sense age group runners don’t establish race calendars and that contributes to a helter-skelter approach to training. It gets us out of phases of training and we never do proper peaking or tapering. The end results is that we indeed are in very good overall condition but we cannot run our fastest.

So, to now answer your question – the solution may be to use shorter races in your preparation for longer races. You replace some quality workouts and replace them with a raced 5k or 10k in your months leading up to a marathon. Skew your faster training earlier so that you can race well in these and focus more on those marathon goal miles afterwards. Of course 5k and 10k speed work enhances your marathoning.

Another solution may be to take half of the year and focus on the mile and 5k and do track events. Then after a brief pre-season phase to the next half – focus on your half-marathon or marathon training.

Finally, you are also right about the marathon goal pace equating to half-marathon junk or as I call them “tweener” miles. And so the fix is that you must run HM goal miles to get physiologically efficient at that pace. Now, the compromise is how many miles can you infuse into marathon training that end up HM goal pacing. This is tricky but it is exactly what you need to find a balance to if you want to optimize your chances in both. But, once again typically the paces are 16-25 seconds per miles different… and that is substantial.

Bottom line:

  1. You can mix training for a variety of races – err on training on the faster paces.
  2. You can do well at many distances and even set PRs if you train sufficiently at goal paces.
  3. You will never be absolutely be your best at any distance until you focus on that one event.
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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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11 Responses to Goal Pacing for the Year Round Runner

  1. John M says:

    Thanks a lot for that thorough and interesting answer to my question! I fully understand what you say about having to specialise at a distance to do your best at it, and I’m probably not focussed as much as I should be. My plan, though, is to focus exclusively on the marathon after November, with the aim of doing all I can to go sub-3 hours at London in April.

    Having said that, by a curious quirk of the way the year pans out, I tend to end up not far from your suggested ‘season’ without thinking of it as such. For the last few years I’ve done an autumn marathon, but in the spring and early summer I’ve done a lot of races at shorter distances – 5k up to 10 miles – just because that’s when they happen to be scheduled here (Norfolk, UK). I suppose the effect of this is that I get a lot of the faster pace work early on, and tend to build up the long runs slightly later on. On the subject of long runs, what sort of pace do you reckon I should be doing the slower, longer ones (alternate weeks) at, given that I’m aiming for around 3:10 for the November marathon? I ask because I’ve never really felt comfortable with the slow paces which often get recommended (like 2 minutes per mile slower than target marathon pace). Once I drop below a certain pace (which for me is something like 7:45 to 8:00 mins/mile), I don’t feel it’s proving any easier, in fact I feel as if I’m using MORE effort (perhaps because my form suffers). Is this OK, or should I be learning to run slower efficiently?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Good stuff. As for your long easy run pace – I am with you and fully understand. Most strong marathoners will feel the same way about going too slow. Rule of thumb for an experienced runner is 1:00-1:30/mile slower than your goal marathon race pace. [Note for anyone reading this that more novice runner often has a goal of “time on feet” just to increase endurance… so that pace is not IRRELEVANT but it is LESS relevant than the marathoners going for those faster times. There is more leeway up to that 2:00/mile slower figure you mention.]
      So, your goal pace is in the 7:00 range and I would recommend 8:00s for your easy long miles as well as your recovery miles – and any midweek easy run. But, to get into the 7:45 range is probably not serving you as well. It compromises an overall program because it is not goal, it is not easy and it is not quality… it’s something in between; it’s a “good” pace but misses the mark.
      So here is the solution: If you feel good and the 8s are too easy; run X at that pace and at some point switch to goal paced miles and drop the pace to that pace… NOT in between. Plan it so you can complete the workout… mix your long easy in so that you can do it.

      Key point: Running 10 @ 7:30/mile is not equivalent (other than total time) physiologically as 5 @ 7:00/mile plus 5 @ 8:00/mile. Hopefully that makes some logical sense.

      • John M says:

        It all makes a lot of logical sense, and I think I’m on your wavelength. Yesterday (before you’d written the above) I did a long run of 16 miles. I kept to a very comfortable pace of 7:50-7:55 for 12 miles, then decided to pick up the pace a bit and did the last 4 miles at 7:05-7:10 pace. I just have to ease off a little on my slow pace and get it down to 8:00. That 7:45-8:00 band is what I think of as my ‘run all day’ pace – i.e., the pace which I just naturally settle into if I have a long run ahead of, and which feels as if I could just run all day at it (which of course I can’t!). I wonder whether this is a common thing among runners?

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    It’s one of the most common errors in runners training and so easy to fix! Keep up the good work.. you’re right on!

  3. Mike says:

    Interesting debate on race times. If this is John’s first marathon, and he wants to achieve a 3 hr 10 min finish time then he needs to be able to run a 38 min 10K time.

    Those last 6 miles are (really) tough!

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Mike,
      If you use various pace calculators you will of course get different estimates on what someone “should” be able to do at any other distance. But, for a 3:10 marathoner only needs to be able to 39-41 for a 10k. However that being said, the faster someone’s shorter distance PRs the better no matter what. Aside from calculators on the practical side – I have a number of 3:03-3:06 marathoners whose PRs are only 40. If you could run in the 38s I would fully expect a sub-3 marathoner.

      The speed of your flat out 10k also (and unfortunately) doesn’t relate well to how well someone finishes those very tough last 6 in a marathon. That is better dealt with through extensive goal paced miles… and running fast miles at the end of long runs.

      • John M says:

        Mike, fortunately it isn’t my first marathon – it’ll actually be by 11th, my best being 3:08 a couple of years ago. I’m not quite so trained up at the moment as I was for that one, but I hope to be by early November. It’s a slightly undulating course, with some off-road sections, or I would perhaps be a little more ambitious. My 10K PR is 38:25 from last year, so according to the various pace calculators, I should be able to do the time I require, but it’ll depend very much on how I do the long run training. Curiously, although I think of myself as a marathoner, according to the calculators by best distance is actually 5K (18:11 PR).

        Dean, thanks for the suggestions about goal paced miles. That’s my new plan!

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    You’re right – nice 5K…. this only reinforces my thoughts on goal paced running. You can do this!

    • John M says:

      Dean, so goal paced running is what builds the stamina? What sort of distances should I be running at goal pace (or what proportion of the long runs)? A couple of years ago I did a training run, a few weeks before the marathon, of 18 miles at my target marathon pace, which felt beneficial psychologically as well as physically, but perhaps that is too far?

      It’s the stamina which I’m looking to build, because my times for the long distances don’t really match my times for shorter distances. For example, with a calculator using Daniels’ VDOT method, if I put my 10K PR in, the equivalent times of other distances are on the whole pretty close to my actual times except for the longer distances, particularly marathon, where I should be getting times well inside 3 hours. I’ve always thought that this shortfall was probably because I wasn’t doing enough long runs. But perhaps it’s that I was not doing a high enough amount of mileage in those long runs at the pace I hope to do on the day?

  5. Dean Hebert says:

    STamina is the ability to handle a specific pace over a specific distance. Endurance is the ability to run long. So, someone who can run 50 miles has greater endurance than someone who can run a marathon. But, both require stamina – the specific pace chosen for that race – regardless of distance. An 800 meter runner needs stamina to finish the last 200 in his race.

    What is missing for most runners is progressively larger portions of their training done @ their goal pace for that goal race.

    Another good workout to enhance stamina is to run workouts that the last miles are your fastest miles. It increases your ability to run hard (mentally and physically) while fatigued.

  6. John M says:

    OK, thanks. I’ll give this a go with a 20 mile run I’m scheduled to do this weekend (actually one stage of a 200 mile route done as a relay, with running clubs competing against each other).

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