The Critical Training Paces

When I was a young high school cross country runner my coach would always tell me to run 400 meter repeats at a precise pace or mile repeats in an exact amount of time. I didn’t question the coach’s instructions – I just carried them out. Later, as a collegiate runner, I began to question why I was training at those paces. I asked my coaches who nearly always had a really cleaver and informative answer like “because I told you to” or because that is how you train”.

I had to take it upon myself to research and discover why certain training paces were important to my development as a runner. I learned in exercise physiology courses how my body reacts to the demands I was placing upon it. I was finally able to understand what paces I should be running and why. I grew as a runner and my performances improved because I understood why I was training and had a reason for every workout I did.

So what are the critical training paces? If you ask 10 coaches you will probably get 10 different answers. I believe that your critical training paces change as your specific race goal and fitness level change. But I also think that there are 5 critical running paces for all goals and experience levels. Those training paces are your endurance pace, lactate turn point pace, vVO2 max pace, sprint pace and goal pace running.

Endurance Pace

Your easy or endurance training paces is probably the most obvious critical pace for a distance runner. I coach a team of young runners. Most of them are very resistant when it comes to doing long training runs. They would much rather run faster, shorter distances. Many of them don’t understand why they have to do 6 – 8 mile training runs when they aren’t racing more than 2 miles.

I explain it to them this way. If they have a hard time running 2 or 3 miles at an easy pace, they will never be able to run 2 miles at a fast pace. That is one of the principles of distance running.

Running your race distance at an easy pace must very easy and simple – almost second nature – before you will be able to run that distance. That is one of the purposes of endurance pace workouts. Endurance pace workouts also improve your VO2 max by increasing blood and oxygen delivery to your muscles. In addition, these workouts are very important for building stronger, more injury resistant muscles, tendons and connective tissues. They make your leg muscles more fatigue resistant.

Lactate Turn Point Pace

The second critical running pace is your lactate turn point pace. You have also heard this called lactate threshold pace or anaerobic threshold pace. Your body produces lactic acid at all times. When you are running at a low to moderate intensity your body uses that lactic acid to produce more energy. As you increase your speed lactic acid is produces at a faster pace. Eventually lactic acid is accumulating faster than your body is able to convert it into energy.

A series of chemical reactions cause a hydrogen ion to be released which raises the acid levels in your blood. This is called your lactate turn point. At your lactate turn point you begin to fatigue quickly. Your muscles begin to lose their ability to forcefully contract. Eventually you are forced to slow your pace. Your lactate turn point is just slightly slower than your 10K race pace.

Training at this pace is important because if teaches your body to become more efficient at converting the accumulating lactic acid to energy. As a result you are able to run at your old 10K pace for longer periods of time and you end up with a new, faster 10K race pace. As an added bonus, all of your other race paces will improve right along with your 10K pace.

vVO2 max Pace

You probably already know what your VO2 max is. It is the maximal amount of oxygen your body can process. There are actually two parts to your VO2 max – the maximum amount of blood and oxygen your body can deliver to your muscles and the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles can extract from your blood. Most of your VO2 max is genetically determined, but you can increase it by about 30% through training. Running makes your heart a stronger pump so it can deliver more blood to your muscles. Running also improves your muscles ability to extract and use the oxygen that is delivered to them.

Your vVO2 max is the minimum running speed at which you reach your VO2 max. This is a much more important indicator of your running ability that VO2 max for one simple reason. It takes into account how efficient you are as a runner. If you take two runners with identical levels of VO2 max and lactate turn point, the athlete that is the most efficient runner will always win. That athlete runs with less effort, so he or she able to run faster at the same level of running intensity.

To improve your vVO2 max you should train at your vVO2 max pace. How do you determine that pace? You could go into a lab and be tested, but that is not a realistic option for most of us. There are also a number of trials you can do on the track to estimate it. But I have an easier way. Your vVO2 max will be right around your 3K race pace or about 12 to 15 seconds per mile faster than your current 5K race pace.

Sprint Pace

This critical training pace is one that is often ignored by distance runners. I believe it is one of the most important training paces. As your top speed improves you are able to run more easily at slower paces. This is similar but the polar opposite as endurance runs. Endurance runs makes running long distances easier, which make running faster at moderate distances easier. Sprint training makes running fast easier, which makes running faster at longer distances easier. In addition, sprint training improves your strength, power and running economy.

Goal Pace

You would think this would be a no brainer, but many distance runners completely ignore goal pace running in favor of tempo work. Tempo running or running at a pace that is about 15 to 20 seconds slower that lactate turn point pace, is a valuable workout but one that is often over relied upon. Tempo running is great for training you to run moderate distances at a quality pace, but goal pace running is more important for race performance. If your goal race is the 10K it is critical to do some running at your goal pace. Goal pace training is excellent for improving your lactate turn point and running economy at race pace.