Change of Pace: Focus on Effort

A group of people running on a track.

I received a text message from a prospective client asking, “If I want to average a 9 minute mile for a half-marathon, what pace should my tempo runs be?”

In the log of one of our athletes, I read this post-activity comment, “My pace isn’t what I would like, but my HR was in the proper zone.”

And, another pace-based question on our Facebook page, “I find it hard to maintain pace going uphill. What should I do?”

It’s hard to ignore pace–especially in terms of how it stacks up against our competition. But, in training, this is not always the best focus if you want to achieve your best pace on race day.

When we coach an athlete, we encourage a mental shift from thinking about pace or speed to thinking about effort. Why?

Good question.

Pace is a finicky friend.

img_7163-400x400-3351300When internal and external conditions are optimum, pace is your best friend. For example, you can fly on a 60-degree day with light wind, running or riding downhill, working on a full night’s sleep, and fully fueled. When the fortunes shift, and you are now running uphill, on a 90-degree humid day in the hot sunshine, after 4 hours of sleep, pace will leave you lonely and confused.

Most athletes–coaches included–can get wrapped up in speed or pace, using that as a singular gauge of progress, and ability. Certainly, speed is one indicator we can use to measure progress, particularly in terms of trends over several months of training.

But–and this is a VERY important “but”–pace is the least reliable indicator of how hard you are working, or your progress on any given day. Relying solely on pace can be dangerous, as it may lead you to overextend your effort. It can also be foolish, as you may underperform because you think you are going as fast as you can.

Another problem with focusing solely on pace is that it can subtly (or not so subtly) throw you off the purpose for a given workout. For example, let’s say your training plan calls for a 75 minute bike ride, to be completed at 60-70% of max effort. The purpose of such a bike ride is clearly to promote active recovery. There is a reason why the plan wants you to take it easy. Maybe the previous day was a killer effort, or maybe tomorrow will be hard. Either way, that ride should be recovery.

But, if you ride at 60-70% of your max effort, you will likely be riding pretty slowly compared to your regular endurance or tempo pace. So, you’ll look at the speed, see 12-15 mph and think, “OMG! I’m going too slow! I need to work harder.”

And, in that moment, speed has just forced you off the purpose for your workout, which makes the training that comes before it and after it less effective. This is an all-too-common issue we see with our athletes. (And, it’s one we’ve had to break ourselves of!)

Simply put: pace is unreliable and may cause us to make foolish decisions.

In order to shift a pace-based focus, we need to think about effort more holistically.

Effort is effort

This is true whether you are going up or down a hill, whether it is hot or cold, whether you are sick or at the top of your game. If you are going at 80% effort – that is the same effort level – no matter how that translates into a specific pace.

So, how can you gauge effort? There are those who will say only power is relevant for the bike, or only heart rate is relevant for running, or pace is the only way to gauge effort.

Our thoughts: Why restrict yourself to only one measure of effort? It’s incredibly difficult to be able to know exactly what our effort is. So, we like to get as much data as possible to help us gauge what our bodies are doing.

We recommend using all of the available means of determining effort while training and racing, including rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate (which we’ve written about here), power (if you have that for cycling), and yes, even pace. Using this combination of indicators allows you to understand how your body is performing and how you are feeling at any given moment. They allow you to make more precise comparisons across courses, conditions, and seasons.

Use your gadgets but don’t be a slave to them

The current trend is toward using gadgets to tells us what our bodies are doing. Indeed, heart rate monitors and power meters are important, and useful tools. We train with them every day.

Yet, these tools become even more powerful when you combine them with your own sensory perception to make sense of the numbers. You need to develop a sense of how your body responds to varying levels of effort so you can make smart decisions on race day. If you only pay attention to the numbers, you may be riding or running yourself into trouble. We like to use the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) with our athletes, especially when they first start training with us and we are working to dial in their zones. This is a tool allows you to rate your perceived exertion on a scale of 6-20, which 20 being maximal exertion, and 6 being no exertion at all.

We share this scale with our clients and ask them to rate their exertion for each workout. We match this rating with heart rate data, pace information, and any other qualitative information. Taken together, we are able to get a holistic sense of how the athlete is performing, allowing us to make decisions about adding or reducing intensity, recovery, duration, and volume. Furthermore, should one of these gadgets fail an athlete during a race, they can always rely on their RPE to help them execute their race day plan.

We aren’t suggesting that you ignore pace–after all, that is tool to measure progress and how we rate with the competition. However, focusing on pace alone is not enough to help you achieve your best pace on race day. Use all of the available means to help you understand what your body can do.

Change of Pace: Focus on Effort
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