Some runners are happy in their one-pace comfort zone, others hide behind this statement to shield them from scrutiny. I sense that most of the runners who say this to me feel a deep sense of frustration at being a one-trick pony.

It’s up to you to change your ways. Some people enjoy running the same routes at the same pace, and that’s fine, but if your goal is to become faster, here’s the scoop: if you go out and run at the same pace every session, you are limiting your ability to improve your times over all distances. You need to practise a variety of speeds in training if you’re going to push the pace on race day.

PACE YOURSELF

In the early days of your running, the aim may have been to increase the distance you covered each week to boost fitness and build a good endurance base. Each time you run, you lay down more red blood cells and capillaries, which allow your body to transport more oxygenated blood and increase your aerobic capacity. Eventually, however, this improvement will hit a ceiling, which means your body has created a good enough endurance foundation. It is now ready to layer on some harder-paced work that challenges a different energy system.

Eventually we all become guilty of consistently travelling at a pace at which we are pushing slightly but not enough to hurt. This is steady running. It has a place in your training week and will play an important role in maintaining fitness levels, but if you run at a steady pace every single time you venture out, you’ll end up in a rut. You’ll also feel tired, as you won’t be doing any easy runs, which give the body a chance to recover. This tiredness prevents you from feeling fresh enough to maximise any attempts at harder sessions.

You have to be prepared to run harder than this steady pace and slower at other times in your seven-day training cycle if you want your running to improve. Every runner has four or five different paces or ‘effort levels’. Think of these levels as running ‘harder’ not ‘faster’.

MOVE UP A GEAR

Mixed-pace training will deliver a variety of performance benefits.

1. Blocks of top-end aerobic work (threshold running) strengthen the heart and therefore increase fitness and the ability to maintain pace for longer. Working in the anaerobic zone (Vo2 max work) – 10K effort and 5K effort from the table above – will further strengthen the heart and teach you to push harder when racing shorter, faster-paced distances.

2. Easy running aids physiological recovery in between the harder sessions and gives your body, and mind, a well-deserved break.

3. Easy running encourages your body to use stored fat for fuel, while harder running uses calories from carbohydrates as fuel. Both of these fuel sources need to be maximised during longer races, such as the marathon. Use both of them if you are running to aid weight loss.

4. Mixed-pace running aids steady improvement on all fronts. Both your fitness and weight-loss goals could hit the buffers – or at least a plateau – without it.

5. Mixing it up boosts start-line confidence when racing. If you’ve practised the pace in training, it will become more achievable on the big day.

6. It is mentally much more exciting to vary your pace. If you make the decision to be much more creative with your runs throughout the week you can take pleasure in the fact that the fitter you become, the longer you will be able to sustain a harder pace.

RING THE CHANGES

Try this simple ‘five-four-three-two-one’ session to prove to yourself that you can run at a variety of paces. The aim is to increase your effort/pace on each block as the block length decreases.

Warm up for ten minutes (five to six out of ten effort level) then complete this session, taking a 90-second easy jog to recover in between each block of running for:

  • Five minutes at steady pace
  • Four minutes at threshold pace
  • Three minutes at your 10K race pace
  • Two minutes at your 5K race pace
  • One minute hard and fast

Top tip: Don’t start too fast on the five-minute block and run the 90-second jog recoveries at an easy pace.

UP TEMPO

Tempo running or ‘threshold’ running is the bedrock of all training. If you were limited to three paces a week, you would do well to aim for an easy recovery run, a steady run and a threshold session. many of us avoid threshold sessions, as they can be tough, and therefore less appealing than running long and slow or running very short and fast. Nevertheless, threshold running is the key to improving. It’s the perfect marriage of slow running and fast efforts and will lead to plenty of personal bests. Build five, five-minute sessions at threshold pace into a 45-minute run (follow each effort with a two-minute easy jog recovery). aim for consistent effort within each block, but be aware that part of the challenge is to try to run the final block stronger than the first.

CASE STUDY

Sarah Farrell
Age: 39
Occupation: TV Executive
‘Working with Phoebe, and discovering that different paces meant different ways of training, is probably the single reason I fell in love with running. Before, I would be trying to do 30 minutes at what I now realise was my then-threshold pace. I felt disheartened because I couldn’t keep it up, which to me meant I must be really terrible at running. learning to slow down and then use my gears within a run in a structured and clever way, meant I could start covering longer distances, and over a period of six months I’ve gone from puffing through a 5K to finishing a half marathon in two hours, while running a negative split. I feel like I’m in control when I run, and that’s really empowering, not to mention fun.’

Naomi Korn
Age: 42
Occupation: Management Consultant

‘I started running in 2009 at a slow and steady pace, but found that I was making little progress in terms of distance covered or speed. I started working with Phoebe to vary my pace work and over the last year I’ve noticed that I have substantially increased my speed for shorter races, (progressing from 42 minutes to just over 34 minutes for a 5K). I have also developed enough stamina to run a marathon, and gained a lot of pleasure out of varying my running pace. I am now working towards the Bath half marathon in the spring, and feel confident that I will be able to substantially reduce my current personal best from 2:44.’

Words by Phoebe Thomas