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Training: Strategies to achieve difficult marathon pace goals

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

In a conversation over the weekend I was asked a question that got me thinking about tackling really difficult pace goals. The runner with whom I was talking asked about achieving a new pace goal that seemed — to him — somewhat out of his range. In other words, he wanted to try to run a marathon at this particular goal pace, but he felt like it might be pushing it to get himself there. He was able to run at least a few miles at the particular pace, so he wanted to know if it was at least possible.

So the question that we discussed was this: how do I get runners to achieve difficult — or very aggressive — pacing goals in races?

A bit of background before I jump into the answer. For those of you that may have read my work on pacing strategy for marathon runners, I tend to fall into a somewhat conservative camp. You’ll find, for example, that I often counsel runners after finishing a marathon to take their marathon pace down by only 5-15 seconds per mile for the next season in order to keep improving over time. This is conservative in that most marathon runners can “imagine” themselves going in the range of 10 seconds faster per mile after they finish a race.

Mentally this feels like an achievable goal, it provides a place to start training that is within their comfort zone, but it does in fact provide a new, faster, goal pace to shoot toward. Ten seconds per mile, by the way, would be over 4 minutes faster in their next marathon, so that’s plenty to tackle for most people.

This question then revolves around a pace goal that is somewhat (but not totally) outside a person’s comfort zone. Say a runner is wanting to drop 45 seconds per mile off of their pace in the marathon. They feel like they conceptually could do it, but that it would be “really hard” and they might even think something along the lines of “I could run that pace for a couple of miles, but for longer I have my doubts.”

These are really challenging problems to solve with runners, but it is possible to tackle a very aggressive pacing goal. The most important things to remember are to be patient and break the problem down into very small pieces.

(Note: Please keep in mind going foward that all of this assumes some level of reasonableness in terms of your capbilities. If you’re a 10 minute miler, you can’t reasonalbly take an aggressive goal to run 5 minute miles. An aggresive pace goal for the sake of this discussion means that you need to be able to at least run a mile or more at that new pace.)

Practicing patience
The most important thing to keep in mind is that patience needs to be at the center of your strategy in tackling a new and aggressive pacing goal. If you pick this new goal and head out and try to run 10 miles at that new pace in your first run, you’re going to set yourself up for a big disappointment. In fact, if you do that, you’ll most likely re-set your goal to something with which you’re much more mentally comfortable. Patience in this situation means that you are willing to start at the beginning and take baby steps toward your goal. You need to be able to tell yourself that it is O.K. that you can’t run 10 miles at this new pace on day 1. Quite the contrary, because it is a difficult new goal you should feel comfortable with the fact that you can’t. You have to tell yourself that you’ll get there in time, but that you’re not there yet.

I often like to make the comparison of achieving new goals to taking a class. You wouldn’t be able to pass the final exam on the first day of the class. You shouldn’t be expected to do that. You should walk into a class comfortable with the fact that you’re at the beginning and that by the end you’ll have the capability and new skills to pass the exam. That’s why the exam comes at the end, not at the beginning. In racing, the races also come at the end, not at the beginning. So take comfort in the fact that if you are starting with an aggressive goal, it should be hard in the beginning.

The second factor to keep in mind is that you must have time to work on your new pace goal. Tackling aggressive new pace goals in four months is not possible for the marathon. Tackling a new goal with a year is possible. This is where the patience comes in: you need to be able to set out for a long range goal and stay focused on it for quite some time. If you can’t imagine yourself starting to train now (in the fall) for a marathon next fall, then you need to work on finding patience first.

This is hard, by the way. It is hard for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that your brain will likely want to pull in your race or get impatient six to eight months down the path. I see this happen all of the time. You may need to write your goal race and pace down on a wall and work toward it and not divert, change races, change paces, or add new races along the way. This will be a test of your patience.

Break it down into small steps
The next aspect of the puzzle is to break your goal down into very small pieces. Since you’ll be spending some time working toward this goal, you have the ability to increment your run lengths quite slowly. For example, you might start runs at this new aggressive pace with just one mile as a part of a longer run and increment this one mile every other week until you work up to 20 miles in your training. If you did this, it would take you 40 weeks — which is 10 months. Then you’ll want some additional time to get comfortable at longer distanes and then to taper — so this will take close to a year.

But think about it this way, mentally could you imagine running 1 mile at this more aggressive pace? If you can, then the power of patience and time can help you get to this new goal. But it will take both of those elements — time and patience — to get there.

So the bottom line is that while most of the runners I work with take on more conservative goals at my urging, if you are considering trying for a more aggressive goal, then give yourself plenty of time (10 months to a year) and start small. If you take advantage of the time and keep yourself from getting distracted along the way, then you can get there.

Here is a sample workout plan that could get you started: start with a short run of 4-6 miles and do the second-to-last mile at this newer, more difficult, pace. Use the last mile to cool down. Incorporate this element into your runs 2-3 times during your training week and do this for two weeks. After that, bring the distance up to 2 miles and do this for two weeks. Keep building until you reach 6 miles. After that time, you should begin doing this pace as your gradually increasing goal paced long runs once a week and growing the distance by 1 mile every other week. Keep doing goal paced runs of 4-6 miles during your training week to ensure that you’re running your goal pace a minimum of two, but even better three, times per week.

Speed work and intervals are also an important part of your training regime to meet these goals, but we’ve cover that in numerous articles here on the site. Look under “intervals” or “speed work” in our Training category.

Be patient. Take your time. And break the problem down into very small steps. Over time that scary “I don’t know if I could run that pace” can become your new goal pace. Just take it one mile at a time.

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Coach Joe English, Portland OR, USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

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