A Slave to Pace


No doubt you’ve known people who are slaves to their running logs. You can always tell who they are, because they’re the ones who finish a run and then make two more trips up and down the street, or another circuit of the parking lot to make sure they can write down a round number in their log with a clean conscience. OK, I admit it; I’m one of those people.

But I hadn’t really thought much about another form of slavery that I would describe as an unhealthy compulsion to run at a certain pace, regardless of the purpose of the run. For example, running at your usual training pace the day after a really long or hard workout might not e the wisest thing to do, assuming you can do it in the first place. Another more subtle habit is stubbornly sticking with a pace that limits how much you’ll actually run. Let me offer an example: If I’m trying to build up my mileage, it might make sense to slow down at least some of my runs a little, until I’ve achieved the new mileage level. Or if I’m trying to extend my long run, maybe I should slow that run until I’m confident in the distance.

I’ll admit that I have no hard scientific evidence quantifying the benefits of slower running for recovery, base building, or long run development. But it struck me the other day how consistently “monotempo” my daily runs were, and I started to wonder if that’s why I felt like I was in a training rut. If you do the same thing every day, eventually you’ll be pretty good at doing that one thing, but maybe you’ll stall out in pursuit of all your other goals.

One reason for thinking about pace these days, is that I still have one crazy, bucket list running goal: someday I’d like to run 100 miles in a calendar week. The last time I mentioned this to my running buddies, they thought it was cool, too. In fact, Terry took up the challenge and, just like that, had run his 100-mile week and checked it off his list. That was years ago, and I’ve never come close to accomplishing the feat myself. Even though it was nothing to Terry, it remains daunting to me…

So one day last week when I had a little free time, I took a pad of paper and I started outlining how someone with my background and history of injuries might rationally build up to making an attempt on the elusive 100 miles. I started by assuming that if I could go a few weeks averaging about 2/3 of my goal weekly mileage (67 miles), then (after a brief taper) I’d be ready to attempt a single week doing 150% of that. I suppose I could have set the bar lower, and assumed I could do it off my current mileage of 50 mpw, but that seemed like too big a jump and a recipe for injury, so I stuck with the higher figure. Next, I assumed that I’d have to get used to running twice a day on most days, which would mean getting more sleep (so I could get up early enough to get in a morning run), and doing that run really slowly so that I wouldn’t be cooked for the afternoon run.

But that brought me back to this puzzle about pace. Why all the fancy doubling, when I could just do longer runs and run them much more slowly? Surely, running 9:00/mi pace would require less recovery than my normal pace now, which is more like 7:30/mi. As I pondered this, it struck me how — when left to my own devices — I simply do not run wisely on my recovery days. Even when I start off with the intention of running super slowly, I always end up running very nearly my normal pace, and more often than not, that limits both how much I do and how effectively I recover. In other words, I finish my normal runs pooped, and there’s no way I could double them and survive. The root of the problem seems to be that lack all discipline when it comes to running more slowly.

One school of thought would say that slowing down to run more ‘junk miles’ would be a terrible idea. It would seem to violate the principle of training specificity, i.e., that training should mimic the goal activity. But if my goal activity is to run 100 miles in a calendar week, rather than to run a decent 5K, well then maybe what I really need to do is learn how to run at a gentler pace, because there’s no way I’m going to run 100 miles at my normal training pace.

To me, the real mystery is why it’s so much easier to run slowly when you’re running with someone for whom the slower pace is a normal pace. I experienced this many times. Unlike running slowly by myself, which feels like torture, running slowly with good company doesn’t even feel like exertion. I can finish a run and feel like I could do it again. But if I had to do the exact same think by myself, I’d never manage it. It would be too tedious and I would fall into a slough of despair before I ever reached the finish.

I’ve wondered if there’s some way to trick myself into running more slowly. For example, maybe if I ran by time not distance, or took a walking break every 30 minutes or something. In other words, I wonder if I’m psychologically trying to get to some imaginary finish line, and it triggers a sense of urgency that expresses itself in a pace that’s unnecessarily aggressive.

So maybe the “solution” to my pacing troubles is to commit myself to the distance first and trust that pace will follow. Instead of saying, I’ll run slowly and see how far I get, if I KNOW that I’m going to be running twenty miles — or a hundred — maybe my brain will get the message and ratchet down the pace appropriately.

Or maybe I just need better company (anyone but me) for my runs.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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4 Responses to A Slave to Pace

  1. Robin says:

    Run with me, and you will be running v*e*r*y s*l*o*w*l*y 🙂

  2. Terry says:

    My 100 mile week was sneaky hard with the miles rolling off smoothly for 3-4 days, then weighing you down like a physical presence at the end of the week. Of course there are some runners we know who pop off 100+ weeks without a care, but most of us look just to survive and emerge relatively unscathed after a single week.

    • Neil Martin says:

      Terry (and Jon), when I ramped up from the 70’s to a mid 90 week during a vacation with my wife’s family, I ended up injured. Felt great all week with a mix of longer and shorter runs but then my knee started hurting the next week and 9 weeks later is still hurting.

      That said, Jenn and I are now in for mapping out a path to a safe 100.

  3. Neil Martin says:

    Jon, what worked for me (but this is all new for me) is to use my heart rate. If I concentrate on keeping my HR at some desired low rate, I can successfully, and comfortably, run slowly. I have the same pace creep you do and my recovery runs have become faster than I would like (today, before An Ras Mor is a perfect example).

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