finding my running pace

this article was written by: andrew

they started writing it: Jul 29, 2022

it was last updated: Feb 20, 2023

I freakin' love running. I started out as a runner in middle school and learned to run and pace using times and a customized training plan from our coach every year. College happened, work happened, and for many years after, I ran sporadically, just happy to put a few miles in a month. Fast-forward to three years ago when training up for the SF marathon. I signed up with a buddy to give this running thing a revisit.

I did some "base building" in the form of the slightly more frequent run and then with 18 weeks to go, I very roughly followed Hal Higdon's Novice 1 training plan. I hit maybe a third of the workouts (mostly at least getting my weekend long runs in), but without going much deeper than hitting the mileage. It was a fun couch-to-marathon, but in retrospect, I probably set an aggressively slow marathon target for my fitness level. Nonetheless, proud and happy to finish and to do it on such a beautiful course.

The most recent era of my training was getting ready for the Ironman 70.3 a few months back. This was the first time I took the training a lot more seriously - I joined a triathlon club and signed up for a small-group coaching program targeting a race around a similar time to mine. My friend was ramping up his running and was diving deep into running theory and I was able to shoot ideas past him. I even skimmed a few books - shoutout to Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger & Scott Douglas in particular. This was the most structured I had run since high school, and the first time I was truly laying out a plan for myself.

This is meant to walk through a bit of the journey I took through ways to train and set target paces.

Obligatory author's note: I truly believe that (1) training is fundamentally personal - different strategies and tools work for different people, and (2) I may be overtly wrong or mistaken (if I am, please message me!).

finding a pace

pace-based workouts

I learned to run and pace using times. I can go out and run an all-out 5K race, look at the results, and then get the rough training paces I should be hitting for my easy, threshold, and interval runs. There are a million formulas out there - one I like a lot is (running coach) Jack Daniel's VDOT, or the Tinman running calculator.

A screenshot of the Jack Daniels' VDOT running calculator. A pace of 20min for a 5k is inputted on the left, and a chart of training timings sits to the right reading 'easy: 8:16-9:06/mi, marathon: 7:18/mi, threshold 6:52/mi, interval 6:19/mi, repitition 5:55/mi'
The Jack Daniels' VDOT calculator in action. You can input a time from a race and understand roughly what paces you should be running each workout type at.

These types of formulas are backed by running research and do their best, but in practice for me, I tend to move away from the exact time and more towards feel (as with any of the things we'll talk about today), since so many variables can effect pace, like heat and hills, and even consistent progression - especially if you're not regularly racing.

That said, I still do love pace-based training as a base to start from, especially when mixed in with other methods, like heart rate training.

heart-rate-based workouts

Enter heart rate monitors. If pace can be unreliable, your heart rate can be a measure of work - kinda? In practice, not really - for several reasons.

  1. Your heart rate is really showing off how hard you worked a little bit ago. Know how you get out of breath after you've climbed that flight of stairs (or halfway up)? Your body was doing similar amounts of work the whole way up, but it doesn't go into overdrive straightaway.
  2. So many externalities affect your heart rate - the heat, that you ate a bunch before the run, that you barely ate before the run, that chock-full-of-caffeine coffee you chugged, the 6 hours of sleep you got (because you cut your sleep short to hit the workout, which is arguably a bad idea).
  3. Inaccuracy. Wrist heart-rate is usually pretty good, but can be off either because of missed sensor readings or cadence lock, and can be mitigated by using a chest strap. A personal preference - I have one and honestly don't love to wear it every workout.
  4. How the heck do you get the heart rate zones in the first place? At minimum, it can't really be accurately set without a chest strap, and for perfect results you theoretically have to go get one done at a running lab. That said, I've never done the latter. The former can be done with a guided lactate threshold test using the chest strap. Garmin's worked well enough for me, but I still questioned the results beyond a baseline, and luckily I also had my max heart rate from when I bonked in my first marathon (oops).

All this results in a metric that's alright and for me? It's honestly a lot to worry about during a run.

one small flaw

There's at least one caveat that causes a decent base system/formula like pace or heart rate to go haywire - one that's particularly brutal in SF - the hills 🤘. If you're going up a hill on an easy run, is it okay if you slip below a 9:06? Probably - but how much? What if the hill starts slopey, then calms down, then goes straight up?! Your heart rate starts to go wild, but probably already past the point of no return, so you're gasping.

what the future holds

Enter something I'm really excited to try out moving forward. In cycling, the Watt is a big thing that pushes how we think about the amount of energy you put out, especially when you have any sort of elevation.

Generally speaking, while cycling power is a mechanical measurement of watt output, running power is an estimate of many variables working differently for each person to try to come out with a consistent measurement, which then change significantly the moment you go up a hill. In theory, you could run on a treadmill and measure the wattage produced by moving the tread, but the reality is that you're not always on the treadmill.

But! We live in a modern, data-oriented world, and so folks are actually trying (and succeeding) in coming up with measurements that are close.

A long-time player/leader in the field has been Stryd, which requires a clip you attach to your shoe and pairs with your smartwatch. Smartwatch creators have also added options: Polar and Coros support a form of running power on most of their watches, and Garmin has started supporting it on select newer watches, while old Garmin watches need a ConnectIQ app installed and a HRM strap or foot pod.

The latest entrant has been Apple, who supports running power from later watches (SE or newer). It's probably the most exciting just in the sense that a lot of people have an Apple Watch, but more enthusiasts are the ones with Polar/Coros/Garmin/Stryd. I'm at least a little bit excited at the notion that Apple could use this data to drive better insights for users, but it's clearly not quite where it needs to be yet.

I love this stuff, but wouldn't even begin to claim I know a meaningful amount here - if you're interested in more, I highly recommend DC Rainmaker's article comparing the latest offerings. You can also read this article about running power with callouts to cycling power.

Closing Notes

In the end, I don't have a bulletproof way to find a healthy running pace for your next training block. Mine has worked for me because of all the runs I've done before and the journey I've taken, but I have no clue how someone brand-new to running might want to start thinking about it (my best guess? don't think about it too much!) - I think it's probably an oscillation/dial-in process where you slowly converge on the right spot for you.

I will absolutely take this time to share a passion project my friend has been working on - Deets.Run (disclaimer: he did not ask me to write this, nor was he aware until the review time that I would be writing this). It takes advantage of Apple's new running power API and works out-of-the-box with the newer watches, but also helps you start to track data like quality intervals and start thinking about runs as more than just the final x distance over y time metric.