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Train at Race Pace to Help Your Run

By Jay Johnson 

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image

One of the most common mistakes I’ve witnessed as a running coach observing triathletes is that many triathletes fail to practice running at race pace. In this article, I’ll give you the rationale behind the concept of running at race pace (which is different than speed work) as well as some workouts that you can use in your training, be it for sprint or Olympic-distance races.

runLet’s first start with the misnomer of speed work being any running on the track. While there are workouts that I consider speed workouts or speed development workouts, running a set of 400s on the track is not speed work. Speed should be thought of as the fastest you can run, so that means you can only maintain that pace for about 30 meters. When distance runners and triathletes refer to their track sessions as speed sessions, they really mean they are running at a pace that is faster than their easy running pace, faster than threshold pace and/or faster than their long run pace. So from here on out, let’s get rid of the term speed work and instead let us focus on the concept of race pace work.

Race pace work is fairly straightforward — it is simply running the pace that you hope to run in a race. So if you’re a triathlete who will be racing the sprint distance and you want to run 25 minutes for the 5-kilometer run leg, then you need to be training at 8 minutes per mile...or 2 minutes per 400m lap. The key point here is that you’re practicing the rhythm that you want to run in the race. Your body will remember that rhythm when it comes time to race and you will have a better chance of running your goal pace for the run portion if you’ve practiced running race pace on the track.

Now that we know what race pace is, let us look at a couple of workouts and how they could fit into your training program. 

The first type of workout is one that I really like. It’s basically a fartlek workout (fartlek is Swedish for speed play) where you will run race pace for a prescribed distance on the track, then you’ll follow that with a recovery run that is faster than your normal easy day pace (i.e. it’s not a slow jog). Many of you are familiar with threshold workouts. Without getting too technical, this fartlek workout improves your aerobic metabolism — your engine — in a similar way to thresholds, yet you get the rhythm and the neuromuscular stimulus associated with race pace.

So an athlete training for an Olympic-distance race could run six sets of 1,000 meters at his goal 10k pace followed by a 600 meter recovery run that is slow enough to allow you to hit the next 1,000m rep, but faster than a jog. The shorthand for this workout would be 6x1,000m w/600m steady.

Sprint athletes have the same concept for their workout, but the race pace portion is 400 meters and the steady running portion is 200 meters. If you run 10 sets of this, you run 6,000 meters total, with 4,000 meters at goal 5k pace. This workout would be written out as 10x400m w/200m steady.

What I like about both of these workouts is that you’re getting a continuous aerobic stimulus for either 24 or 15 laps, depending on the workout. And this is a great way to get in the groove that you’ll need to run if you’re going to hit that 5k split you’re capable of. You want to run these workouts in the same shoes you’ll be racing in. That said, you need to build up to running this volume in your race shoes, so make sure you’ve done a threshold run or two in your racing shoes before you do this workout in your race shoes.

Triathletes also should consider discontinuous workouts. In these workouts, athletes run a prescribed distance then use a slow jog to recover. As an example, if you’re training for the sprint distance, you can run 500m 10 times and take 30 seconds to recover between each repeat. Olympic distance athletes can run 800m 10 times for a total of 8,000m with 60 seconds recovery. 

Both of these workouts are tough as you’ll switch from running a pace that feels comfortably hard to finishing the workout feeling like you’re racing (and for this reason I recommend only 8,000m of work for the Olympic-distance competitors — that is plenty of running at 10k pace). If you can successfully dial in that goal race pace with these discontinuous workouts, instead of trying to run the repetition (i.e. the 500m or the 800m) faster, decrease the rest interval. That change not only will make the workout dramatically more challenging, but also will simulate the sensation of racing. At first the pace initially feels doable, yet as the race goes on the pace feels nearly undoable.

One final thought. Good distance runners — even marathoners — do strides in training. A stride is simply a short distance of running that is much faster than race pace. You can go by distance (100m strides) or by time, running roughly 20 seconds fast. You’re not running all out when you do a stride, but you are running faster than 5k race pace. Consider doing a set of four to five strides with about a minute of easy jogging in between the strides following your easy runs. The strides will help you when it comes time to run 5k or 10k pace on the track.

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