Training at race pace or racing at training pace

The various half and full marathon training plans I've read all suggests training at 60-90 seconds slower per mile than expected race pace. Some of them chucks in some speed training to at least give the runner an idea about what race pace feels like.

The logic is (obviously?) that racing is meant to be a full-on activity where one gives everything to place as high in the ranking order as possible and have a good chance of winning the race. And I guess that since many plans are written by experienced ex professional runners turned coaches, that's a logical approach for them.

But many of us (most?) race just because it's something to train towards, it's a fun day out, and it gives us the bragging rights of having done a long race. Whether we finish as number 17,382 or number 11,824 doesn't matter one iota.

The downside (IMnsHO) of training at less-than race pace is (obviously?) that if one has spent six months running hundreds of miles at x minutes per mile, then how can one possibly expect to suddenly be able to run 13 or 26 miles at x minus 1?

I sort of get it for a 5k or a 10k race where I can imagine ignoring the discomfort initially and pain towards the end and just force myself to run faster than I like. When training for a half or a full marathon, 10k becomes "just another gentle run" that is done loads of times. So no biggie if you were to start a little too fast and have to slow down or grit teeths and run through the pain.

But imagine starting out too fast on a marathon and then realising after the first 15 km that you're knackered. Trying to find the grit to "carry on regardless" for another 25 km just doesn't go well with "a fun day out". In fact, it does not go, full stop (at least for me).

And the flip side is that if we train at full race pace, then we risk wearing ourselves out during the training runs. They're meant to build the body up, and the only time anything is supposed to tear it down (if at all) is on the big day itself.

So the way I see it, for those of us who take one shot at "the big one" (whether that's a full or a half) per year, it means quite a lot to try to get it right. It's not like we can just write a rubbish race off and try again next weekend.

Sorry. I'm going around and around the arguments for and against.

In my current training I'm doing 90% of my runs at around 7 min/km which gives a marathon time of just under 5 hours, and that's the pace I hope to maintain as I drag myself around the course in May. The remaining 10% is done at around 5:40 which is my 10 race pace. If I could sustain it for 4 hours it would be a 4 hour marathon, but there is zero chance of that happening anytime soon.

So am I training at race pace? Or am I actually allowing myself to gently cruise through the race at a modest training pace? Could I do "better" than 5 hours if I put my mind to it, pushed the envelope a bit harder and ran some more intervals during training? Possibly. Probably. But it would mean increased injury risk, and it would mean showing up at the starting line without a clue about whether I was able to finish. And with one shot at "the big one" in a year, I don't want to do that.

Sorry for all the waffle. I would be interested in views and opinions and other people's experiences. Do you, like me, plan to race at your training pace, or do you train gently and race hard, or have you found a third option?

18 Replies

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  • I'm dreaming of doing a marathon in April in around 4 hours :) My Plan (which tells me I could do it in just over 4 hours) will soon have me doing short runs at faster than race pace, and long runs at just below race pace. During the taper there will be short runs at race pace. All of it is balanced out with runs of varying lengths at gentler paces.

    I'm not sure if this is then the third option? :)

    Pace aside, I do find the Plan is a bit sketchy with respect to hills and intervals, though, so I'm incorporating those into the Planned runs. Hill repeats are all kinds of good, and I think particularly that "strides" at the ends of longer runs are important, as they teach one to pick up the pace at the end of the race.

    I hope this all means that I'll be running the marathon at "race pace" as per the Plan, but I'm just gonna see how it goes, because I also quite like the idea of "a fun day out" :) I have only run one marathon before, and as it was my first, and it was an extremely hilly one, my plan for it was run where possible and walk as needed. And it was really fun. I expect my plan for the day of the next one will be more detailed - I think the fact that I will know the course this time will help!

  • I'm surprised by the long runs at just below race pace, but only because I haven't come across them (I have mainly been sticking to "beginners" plans). The combination with your short fast and varrying gentle runs does make sense, and it is probably the third option I was looking for. I must look into it for the 2018 Marathon - nothing wrong with a bit of forward planning!

    I love intervals for speed and hate hills. Probably because I live in a very flat area, so all my day-to-day running is pancake-flat. But I agree with you they are good, and they're also on my "must do this some day, maybe after the marathon"-list :)

    Strides at the end of longer runs sounds great. I think I'll steal that idea right away!

    Like you I have only one under my belt. So we're learning as we go along, refining things for the next one. Sounds like the right way. I do hope you get through yours at the planned race pace. Around 4 hours. One day... one day. All I gotta do is train for a few more years and grow a decade or two younger, and then it'll suddenly be achievable :)

  • Well, when you achieve that last bit I hope you'll share the method! :)

    4 hours is massively ambitious, but well, hell, why not try? But of course I will be consulting my body carefully as I go, that's the uttermost important part!

    Good luck :)

  • I respect the ambition. And admire it. I'm planning on some speed training after the marathon and aiming for a 2h HM a year from now. So I guess a 4h marathon is "just" doing that twice *hollow laugh*.

    But you're right. Why not? It gives a great focus, and if you don't aim for the stars you'll never reach the moon.

    Good luck to you as well Rose :)

  • I must be honest, I have not read through all of the content 'waffle'.

    What worked for me was using the training program available to Garmin users. I know that Polar has similar training plans (used to have a Polar previously). Both stress that the long runs need to be at Zone 2 heart rate levels. This is needed to build up stamina. You would be able to have a look - see at polarpersonaltrainer.com/ and/ or connect.garmin.com/en-US/ (sorry, am not familiar with the other heart monitors)

    You need to create an account and then take it from there.

  • Hi George,

    thanks for the response. I have an aversion to signing up to generalised plans, but thanks for the links.

    How did the training at zone 2 work for you? Did you end up racing much faster than you trained? Did you finish feeling strong? I love to hear about personal experiences.

  • Hi Tomas

    At the outset, I need to highlight that I stumbled across a number of things that I now do differently from the mainstream.

    I have been monitoring my heart rate effort since 2002 when I splashed out to get my first heart monitor. My training intensity increased very slowly over time (after all I have better things to do other then exercising for a whole 30 - 45 minutes, didn't I). Eventually when reaching the 60-minute range, I was plagued by unbelievable fatigue (later identified to having hit that dreaded 'brick wall').

    When exploring for solutions, I stumbled across the Healthy Fat Low Carb performance regime. At the same time I came across the Chi-running (injury free running) concept and when eventually attending a day workshop on its How-to (quite frankly, I simply could not get to grips with it by just reading the book). It was during this workshop that I came across the barefoot/ minimalist footwear idea.

    The combination of these changes took time and discipline to retrain my body to these changes. A number of questions remained unanswered to me until having read a book Tread Lightly recently which changed a number of things for the better having gained a better understanding on what to focus on and the why's.

    In 2013 with the inaugural Dublin Rock & Roll HM I managed to finish in 1hr 53 min using only home-made electrolytes. In Sept 2016 I completed a full marathon (running solo) but did did much longer than hoped for - 4hr 36 min, this time having water, home-made electrolytes and fat-rich chirozo munchies. This might be due to my participation in a 100km cycle event 2 weeks earlier? (I might have to add that I turned 60 this year)

    Generally I do not participate in organised events as I feel that the costs involved are simply not justified, and can get a far better quality running shirts at a fraction of such costs. All my consumables are carried with me as it is recommended that whatever you plan to consume during an event, that you use that during practices to allow your body to get used to it.

    To cut a long story short, initially the Z2 run rates were tedious at first, but with time I have grown to enjoy them and what a pleasure observing my shaving off seconds per km whilst my average HR is reducing at the same time.

    It is my opinion that this has contributed to my having plenty energy left at the end of a long run to the extent that after finishing my LR's I tend to sprint in Z4 on my way home, which could be anything between 15 - 45 minutes away depending on which route I selected.

    Hope that this makes sense & is of help

  • I run with a plan which is broken down into logical phases. I am in the race phase now and then next week is taper. the first phase is slow running to get the legs stronger. speeds, times and distances are mixed up. Towards the end of the programme the speeds are upped. I run hills as I find them to be the best way of getting fitter. when I come to run on the flat it seems so much easier.

    In race I divide it into 3 parts and then imagine I am a fire♨ Slow to get going, mid phase the heat is hotter but not yet raging but I am finding it a bit hot under the collar. final phase I am feeling the heat now, more breathless and pushing harder to reach safety. For the final 25 to 50k it's an all out charge as the flames lick my heels 😊 Pacing yourself economically to ensure you have enough to get you through to the end. if you have done the training, you should have the capacity to do it. I don't try try run a race at one pace. I hope you don't 😯

    I did find running 4 times a week too much. also the intermediate plan contained too much fast running so I was getting too knackered. I ratcheted down a notch to easy plan 3 times a week. I am now ok ☺ The "easy" plan is anything but though 😊 This is myasics by the way

    I run cos it's fun. I ain't gonna kill myself ☺

  • It sounds like you're running races "proper" by holding back some energy to overtake competitors and have a surge towards the end. I'm more laid back - my ideal is to run the same pace for the entire race.

    Good for you with the hill training. It certainly does make you stronger. I am "hill deprived" where I live, so if I have a hilly race I suffer the consequences.

    You say that "towards the end of the programme the speeds are upped". Are they upped to race pace for the long runs, or is it still training at a more gentle pace, with race pace being reserved for short intervals? Do you find that myasics get your pacing right - is the predicted finishing time realistic or is it over/under what happens in reality?

  • Hi I relaxed and tried to do my long training runs at a pace I felt comfortable with. I know that sounds very simple and it is.

    I did two 20 mile runs as my last long runs and did them at a comfortable consistent pace, both were within a minute or two of each other as to finishing time. Do your best to enjoy the day and focus more on time for the other marathons that you will go on to do.

    All that said I did have a time I'm mind for my first full please please please try hard to listen to all those that say don't have a time in mind for your first marathon. I handled the nerves on the badly and ended up dehydrated and the rest is history. You put so much into the day and so much can happen.

    Do as much as you can in terms of speed training its such a huge step up in terms of time commitment.

    Are you sure as to leaving out hills on your training? I got a shock on the day - I thought I knew the course and there were a lot more hills and/or gentle inclines aside from the 'heartbreak hill' that we'd all been focussed on.

    Enjoy the training, I really enjoyed my two 20milers and my 16. Happy running

  • Hi Sharon, like you I pretty much ignored anything about pacing for my first marathon. I'm now training for my second, which is why I am thinking (a little) about pacing and have (a kind of of) an idea about what my realistic time might be.

    The thing is I don't want to do a lot of speed training. I think focusing on speed and distance at the same time is a recipe for disaster for my legs. Some people can get away with it, but I'm not one of them - I have sadly learnt this the hard way.

    Sounds like you had the pacing right during your long training runs. Did you pick the same pace for the race, or did you attempt to race faster than you had trained? (and why / why not)

    You're not wrong about the time commitment. It shocked me for the first, and this time around I'm trying for longer but slower.

    One thing I learnt was that I love love love long runs in new places. So I'm not surprised you really enjoyed your long runs. There's something wonderful about the long runs when you get to finish them without feeling completely wiped out.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, and happy running.

  • Hi Tomas

    its been a hectic few days so sorry for the delayed reply. I planned to run my marathon at the same pace I did my two 20mile runs at because I felt that it was a fast enough pace (I had found a marathon buddy to run with) yet I still felt that I would be strong enough to continue on for the 6.2 miles after.

    I think you have to go with what feels right for your body and your running. I do think you would be adding unnecessary pressure on your body to race above what you had been running in your training runs particular as you are using your last few runs as rehearsals for the day itself.

    You could always look at your stats from your last marathon as a guide too.

    Best of luck

    Sharon

  • Tomas - I believe there are many "theories" about how to train for endurance running. And that is all they are , theories put forward by people ( runners and trainers) from their own personal experience. But - as is said, we are all an "experiment of one" :) One thing I do believe is that time and pace should not be any kind of consideration for a first time distance - my first HM was a Galloway plan entitled "to finish in an upright position" ( which I now have done twice) - my new plan is entitled " to finish with a time goal in mind". There are calculators which attempt to give approximate finish times for different race lengths based on your current fitness level (as indicated y the time of a recent race) - I have found these to be quite accurate - to within + or- a few minutes. My 5K PB gives me a faster time for both the 10K and HM than I have been able to achieve so far - but I believe that the effort level for a 5K is quite different to that of these longer races, so when I put in a slightly slower time for the 5K, I get the times that I have done for them. Anyway, because I have now got a PB for both 10K and HM, it gives me something to work towards. I don't really care if I never beat these times - but I would like to be able to maintain them.

    I also believe the general principle that we need to train for 3 different things, 1. endurance 2. stamina and 3.speed ( speed not really being required for long distances because it is only used at either the finish line or to surge during a real race to upset fellow racers pacing with you :) ) - endurance training implies doing the distance and further at no particular pace , stamina training implies obtaining the ability to do the distance at a specified pace. This latter stamina training is where running at race pace or a bit faster comes in. It is done for shorter distances than the full distance of the race - and is meant to show us that we have the ability to do it. BUT - it is ONLY the race that proves this. There is a saying which I like - "

    Don't leave your best times on the training track - leave them on the race track" :)

    In previous 10K and HM race training, I have done long runs every second week on one day and during the intervening week, I have done half the previous weeks longrun at race pace. I will basically do the same thing this time - except it will be 30sec per K faster over a set number of 800m repeats with a couple of minutes rest between each one. ( total will be to the half of the previous weeks long run) . All other runs are shortish easy runs with a 5K parkrun ( done well below PB pace) every week

  • That's an interesting approach, and I like it. Long run one week at a leisurely pace, and half the distance next week at race pace. Many thanks for the input Bazza.

  • I was first in my new age group 70-75 at parkrun last week - without even trying very much!!!! :) I will have to see if I have any challengers this week!! :) However - will somebody please tell me when that 74YO very fast lady (who turns up every now and then ) is intending to come to parkrun - I will find something else to do on those days!!

  • I find this post very interesting.... I completely agree re the race pace. I've never understood that. I plan to train for a HM doing it quicker, but I aim to be at that pace comfortably beforehand as the race itself brings on so many other stresses!!! I made the decision when I ran Brighton marathon that I wanted to be strong enough to finish WITH energy in the tank, and to enjoy the experience and the sights. For me that meant going at a comfortably slow pace from the start. I ran with someone else and I felt strong at the end which meant I wasn't emotionally and physically wrecked which would then impact on my running ( I did it in 5 hours 20). I didnt have a slump after and ran daily for much of the summer. I will always approach marathons in this way as I will not push for the expense of my future running enjoyment. However 10k and HM I will push as I have targets around that, but that's why I will train at the right pace. Sorry I've waffled a bit, it was really good to read your post as I have been pondering that myself 😎

  • I totally agree about finishing strong enough to not be wrecked. On my second HM everything went wrong, and I finished walking, cold, miserable, emotionally blacked out. it took over a month before I was able to run again (most of it psychological, I'm sure). No race is worth that.

    As for training and being comfortably at race pace beforehand... Yes, indeed! Takes the guess work away and allows you to focus on the task at hand.

    In a way I guess it's not that dissimilar to the "don't wear new shoes" advice. Arriving prepared, doing what you have trained for and KNOW you're capable of makes for an enjoyable day.

  • The pace is upped in the 2 weeks before race day, even for the long runs which are run at race pace. Then the week after that is taper week so that one is not tatered on race day. The plan also pulls in intervals and fast runs in the earlier weeks, just to mix things up. there is plenty of early slow leg building runs

    I have found the myasics to be virtually spot on as regards race prediction times. if you think about it, the predicted time should be right. you give them the time of a previous race and they set to going with a plan. it's interactive so when you file the times of the training runs, they keep a track of you and suggest any tweaks. either suggesting lower or faster according to how you're doing. they give you specific paces to run at for each run, somthere's no guess work

    As an older runner 😊 I have to pace myself for the race, so start slower for the first third, then a bit quicker so I can hear myself puffing a bit and then quicker for the final third, with the hammer right down for the last 25 to 50 metres. I can't sprint for long 😊

    I think it might be nice to run a race at one slow pace but on a long race it could get boring. your legs could get stiff and need shaking up a bit 😊

    I switched to lower drop shoes , as per the previous poster, and prefer them now

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