Brain Training: Pacing By Effort

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning to train myself to pace by effort rather than using my Garmin. One main reason is the semi-arbitrary nature of setting training paces, especially for speed workouts. I know that there are very well-established pace calculators, but given all of the variables that can affect your performance (e.g., hydration, fueling, fatigue, weather, mood, training, etc.), it seems unrealistic to think you “should be able to” hit a certain pace 100% of the time. Pace calculators use mass quantities of data and provide the average pace range that they consider reasonable for someone with your race time. Since everyone is different, the set paces can work against you in two opposite extremes. One one end, you might actually be able to run a faster 800 m than predicted, but settle for the prescribed target because that’s what you’re “supposed to” be able to do. On the other hand, if you miss that target, it’s easy to get down on yourself, which can hurt your confidence. To me, it seems more logical to go out and try to run the fastest tempo/interval/fartlek you can that day, not what a pace calculator says you should.

Another reason I want to learn to pace by effort is so I don’t rely on my Garmin as much during races. When I’m racing, my Garmin never seems to tell me the pace I want it to. It’s either showing a pace that’s too slow when I’m already trying really hard, or it’s too fast and I ignore it (only to burn out later). Sometimes, it just doesn’t work and then I freak out even more. Basically, there’s been very few times when I’ve looked down at my watch and was actually happy about the pace. Racing without my Garmin recently was so much more satisfying, even though it was one of my slowest 5K’s ever. It just reminded me how much fun it was not to be constantly freaking out about my pace during a race.

My goal is to train my body to pace by effort by focusing on breathing, cadence, and form. To do that, I plan to run speed workouts without looking at my Garmin and do post-run analysis to see how my effort (and predicted pace) matches up with my actual pace. There is one problem: I can’t turn off the pace display on my Garmin. On intervals, this is not a huge issue, as I can just switch over to time display; however during tempo or progression runs, sometimes my watch doesn’t beep for the mile split, so I occasionally need to look at the distance for confirmation. I pondered for a while about this conundrum and came up with a solution that MacGyver would proud of:

Can you spot the difference?

Can you spot the difference?

I put electrical tape over the pace display. Genius right? Should I patent this or what? 😉

Anyway, so that’s what I rigged up for my progression run this morning. My goal was to run a 1 mile warm-up, 4 miles of effort progression, then cool-down for 1 mile. Importantly, I wouldn’t look at my splits until after the workout is complete.

The workout:
– Warm-up @ 9:53 – about 30 seconds faster than my usual warm-up. Oops.
– Progression mile 1 at medium effort. I guessed my pace to be around 9:30. Actual pace: 9:20. A little speedy, but I’ll take it.
– Progression mile 2 at medium hard effort. This started to feel pretty intense. Not surprised to see 9:03 later for this mile.
– Progression mile 3 at hard effort: Definitely went out too fast and it was taking a toll. I felt like I peaked too soon and I didn’t have much room to go. Actual pace: 8:44. Took a short water/walk break between mile 3 and 4.
– Progression mile 4 at hardest effort: I really did give it my all, but the best I could muster was 8:52. I definitely peaked too early.
– Cool-down @ 10:27.

This was really fun! I learned a lot, mainly that I went out too fast. (DUH.) I also learned that it was much easier for me to predict the slower paces than the faster ones. I think that next time, I might use the Garmin to help me pace the first mile and then go by effort after so I don’t burn out too soon. One nice thing about going by effort was that I was really concentrating on form and how I was feeling/breathing, rather than constantly checking my watch for the pace.

The other thing I’ve been noticing is that I like progression runs A LOT. It’s easier for me psychologically to start off slower than the average pace for the session and build with each mile, rather than trying to sustain the same pace for all 4 miles. I’m starting to think about how to transfer the progression idea/pacing over to a longer format like a half marathon. I like the ideas from this article, but I’d be interested to hear how others tackle pacing. What is your strategy for pacing, and does it change depending on the race distance?


Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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Posted in Brain Training, random, Training
8 comments on “Brain Training: Pacing By Effort
  1. Oooh, I want to try this experiment! I can totally see myself thinking I’m doing like 7 minute miles only to find out I’m doing 10’s.

    • Jen says:

      Haha. Wasn’t it the opposite for you recently — that you thought you were running 10’s but really doing 7’s?? Well, if you do this experiment, let me know how it goes!

  2. Dominick S. says:

    I usually run on effort…over the last two years I have become fairly good at guessing my pace. I use Nike + and it only tells me what my pace is averaging for the entire run, so after the first mile it is an average and not the last mile that it yells out at me. I always run races based on feel because of this, I try to start off in the comfortable but pushing it zone, then once I hit a halfway point I will gauge where I am at, where I want to be and how I feel then adjust accordingly. This all works fine but it scares the b-jesus out of me when thinking about applying it to NYC.

    • Jen says:

      I want to do exactly what you describe. Teach me your ways! haha
      Don’t think too much about NYC — you won’t be as scared once you have the training under your belt. Also, I feel like the goal of your first marathon is complete it, not to race it. Enjoy!

  3. BT says:

    I like it! Very clever.

  4. Angela says:

    I think you are exactly right. There are too many variables that affect pace both from person to person & day to day to blindly follow numbers. (Actually, I think the people who write the books & charts & things know this & really do intend the numbers to be only a rough ballpark, but they assume everyone else knows this too when a lot of people don’t.) Going by the paces without taking how you feel into account can end up causing the same problem as going out too fast on a day when a pace that’s usually comfortable just isn’t going to happen for whatever reason.

    I write the paces down because I’ve learned to interpret them as an effort level, and I don’t let it bother me if for whatever reason I can’t quite hit them on a given day. Also, I’m clearly more of a middle-distance runner than a marathoner — I can always hit my speed intervals 10-20 seconds faster than all the charts & tables say with no problem, but my marathon is currently 15-20 minutes slower than those predictions.

    • Jen says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right when it comes to interpreting the numbers as recommendations, not absolutes. MacMillan even provides a range, as well as different suggested paces if you’re a fast-twitch versus a slow-twitch runner. I think the main issue for me is that I need to gain more experience at speedwork so I can have a useful reference point, rather than letting numbers dictate how I run. Also, using my Garmin as a tool and not as a crutch.

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