I am training for a half-marathon with a plan that calls for race-pace workouts at "the pace at which you expect to run the race." I wonder whether these should be done at my current half-marathon pace or at my goal race pace.
I don't know if my goal is even realistic. In addition, because my half-marathon goal pace happens to be my current 10-K pace, the workouts feel quite hard, leave me feeling tired for the next day's long run. What are your thoughts on whether to train at current versus goal fitness? Thank you! –Joao
Hi, Joao! You're wise. Race simulation workouts are an effective ingredient for training, and fitness is the secret to getting it right every time. For one, these workouts are only effective if you have a solid base of running fitness. If you don’t, stick with lower intensity workouts until you do.
The key to running race simulation workouts is to simulate the race effort versus the pace. For one, your fitness now will vary greatly from your fitness on race day. So, trying to run at a magic pace now can cause overtraining and fatigue and slow your progress. Plus, it's nearly impossible to calculate a race pace early in the season—sometimes, even the day before the race!
Instead focus on what is important—the effort. Run by your body, at a level that is considered moderate to on the edge of hard. I call it the “orange zone,” an effort at which you can talk but only in choppy words. If you can't talk at all and are on the verge of swearing, you're beyond race effort. If you can talk effortlessly about the movie you saw last night, you need to pick it up.
When you run by this effort to simulate race effort, your body will naturally progress over time, as will your pace. Keep in mind that pace can vary based on the day, the weather, the elements, stress to your body, sleep, nutrition, and more! Let pace be the outcome and focus on training with purpose and by effort.
As you develop fitness through the season you can run 10-Ks to better evaluate a pace range, but even that may vary on race day. It's best to go into race day focused on effort and your body, as it takes out the negative mental energy that can happen when you look at your watch instead your body for guidance.
For instance, you could map out a goal of nine-minute pace and end up having the fitness and the perfect weather day to run 8:30s. Or, you could map out that nine-minute strategy, but then it's 80 degrees, you overheat, and you crawl over the finish line even after slowing your target by 30 seconds per mile. It isn't about pace, folks; it's about effort.
The goal on race day should be to run a solid and strong race. That means no bonking, burning out, or slowing down. When you achieve this, you get the keys to the castle, because you know the strategy to successful training and racing.
The problem I continue to see in my coaching and consulting with runners is when time goals are selected that aren’t based on current fitness, actual training adaptation or performances along the way. Sometimes the number becomes a means to motivate and may not match your fitness.
That doesn’t mean you can’t set a time goal and achieve it, but it should always start with developing a base—finishing your first race at a given distance, then using that as a means to improve and progress little by little. If you set out to cut 50 minutes off your marathon time to break 4 hours, you are basing your goals on numbers rather than reality. Instead, you could set a goal to improve performance and cut a smaller chunk of time—say 10 minutes—and continue to evolve as you go. That is how elite runners train and perform—from high school, to college, to a professional career, these runners improve like a fine wine, in time.
I weave race-simulation workouts into my clients’ training plans, but they are all based on running by feel and breath versus the watch. My go-to race-sim workout is one that also teaches you how to pace yourself to glory (a strong finish and a smile on your face). Here’s one of my race simulation workouts. (These of course vary based on the runner’s fitness and experience.) This can be plugged into your schedule on cutback six-to-10-mile long-run weeks quite nicely.
8-Mile Race Simulation Run
Warm up by walking 3-5 minutes
- Run 4 miles at an easy conversational effort level (you can talk freely)
- Run 3 miles at a moderate effort level (you can talk only in short words, not sentences, and can hear your breathing)
- Run 1 mile at a hard effort (you can’t talk and you’re at a controlled hard effort)
Cool down by walking 3-5 minutes
It’s also important to train to a course’s specificity, including flat terrain if you’re running the Chicago Marathon, hills in you’re gunning for Boston, or long climbs if you’re running Big Sur. Think like MacGyver and simulate the race course, fuel, hydration, effort, pacing, and more. When you do, race day will feel familiar and you’ll rock the course.
You’re a very wise runner to search for the purpose and meaning of this workout. When you train by effort and match it with purposeful workouts, you will improve and your pace will guide you to the range of finish times that are possible.
I truly believe when you run by your body and avoid letting the watch guide you, your mind calms and opens the door for incredible improvements that may not have been possible if you led by a number.
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