Back to Fitness: Finding Your Pace (It’s OK to Walk!)


By John Andersen

Becoming familiar with what pace and effort you should run often takes runners years of trial and error to figure out. But it doesn’t have to. Let’s look at the terms “pace” and “effort.”

Pace is simply what speed you are running, most often measured in minutes/mile, i.e. “I’m running at a 10 minute/mile pace.” However pace can be a deceiving tool.

Consider “Jane Crozet.” She can run around the Western Albemarle track at a 9 min/mile pace comfortably. But when she runs through Old Trail and on Jarmans Gap Road, that same pace becomes a bit more difficult. Sometimes she goes trail running, but up on the AT, a 9 minute/mile pace is not possible for her because of the steep mountain climbing.

Jane also runs on treadmills from time to time–one at home and one at ACAC. Running at 6.5 miles/hour (approximately a 9 min/mile pace) feels totally different between the two machines, and running on these treadmills feels totally different from running on roads.

Lastly, running a 9 min/mile pace feels much harder if she is stressed, tired, or hasn’t been sleeping well.

Effort is how hard or easy it feels when you’re running and it’s a much better tool to guide workouts. If you are a newer runner or getting back into fitness, let effort, not pace, be your guide and do all of your runs at a conversational pace, where you can easily talk and breathe while running. A heart rate monitor is the best way to measure your effort, but it is not necessary if you learn to listen to your body.

Let’s revisit Jane’s workouts with a heart rate monitor on her to better demonstrate effort. Jane is a fit, 40-year-old woman and wants to run at an easy, aerobic effort. Using the 180-age Maffetone formula (Google that!), this would be with a heart rate at or below 140 beats per minute. While running at the track at 9 minutes/mile, she is right at a 140 heart rate and feels easy. When she runs around the hilly roads of Crozet, she keeps her effort easy and her heart rate at 140, which slows her pace to 10 minutes/mile. When she heads up to the AT, that easy effort takes her pace down to 14 minutes/mile.

On her home treadmill, she can only run at 5.5 mph (approx 11 minutes/mile) at her easy 140 heart rate, but at the treadmill at ACAC she kills it at 6.5 mph. Her home machine is probably not calibrated right.

Last, when feeling rested and relaxed, she can run 8:45 minute miles at the track at her 140 HR, but other days when she’s been sick or overtired, she runs a sluggish 9:45 pace.

Running at an easy effort makes running more fun, puts less stress on your body, and reduces your risk for getting running injuries—achy knees, sore muscles, tendinitis. Gone are the “no pain, no gain” days! This was the old guard approach to working out.  Exercise should be fun and easy, like play.  This will allow it to become a lifestyle change versus a two-week whim.

The traditional idea of “going for a run” means running, not walking. However for many newer runners, it can be difficult to run up the many hills we have here. Since you’re “going for a run,” you don’t stop, and hope to God your heart rate slows down before it bursts. A few miles of this leaves you feeling spent, discouraged, and possibly injured.

Now let’s take the smart new runner. He is “going for a run” through Old Trail and hits the paved bike path going up to the town center.  He has been running at an easy effort, but a little ways up the hill his breathing gets heavier and his heart rate rises to an uncomfortable level. Instead of pushing through, he simply walks with purpose (or ‘power hikes’ as we call it in the trail running world). His face says “I’m enjoying myself today” vs. “I failed to run up this hill, don’t I suck?” At the top he resumes running and repeats this process every time he gets to a challenging hill. After 3 miles of running, he is fresh and feels like he can do it all over again.

If you own a heart rate monitor, use it! It is great biofeedback. Otherwise, keep all your runs at an easy effort. When you get to a hill, don’t be afraid to walk.