Want to become a better, more confident runner? The key is in the pacing – knowing how fast or slow you need to go to keep on running. We explore how to find the pace that’s right for you.
Running is a simple sport. It simply requires putting one foot in front of the other for a certain period or length of time. But it can be a painful and frustrating experience, and a lot of that tends to be because we don’t pace ourselves properly.
Pacing is all about moving at a speed that’s right for your body and goals. Generally speaking, you’d want to run 5k faster than a 10k because it’s harder to sustain the same pace when you’re covering double the distance. If you’re running for recovery, as a shake-out or simply to get the steps in, you might purposely want to run that 5k much slower than you would at a race or parkrun.
Pacing is important at all levels of running – from beginners looking to complete their first non-stop 20-minute jog, to marathoners trying to survive 26.2 miles. And no matter how experienced we are at running, sometimes, we get the pace wrong.
At the London Marathon 2017, I remember jogging past the 21-mile mark only to find the road ahead littered with the bodies of men who had cramped, been sick or hit the wall. As St John Ambulance volunteers carted them off, I clocked how few women were among the casualties. That’s not wholly surprising; time and time again, women have been found to be much better at keeping pace than men.
In 2018, Strava looked at data from 10,706 runners who had completed the 2017 London Marathon (25% of those who took part), and the company found that women were ‘significantly better’ at pacing – with the best pacers in the event being women aged over 60. In 2020, yet another study (this time by Run Repeat) looked at over 2.3 million results from six world marathons. It found that women are 18.33% better at keeping an even pace than men.
Why does pace matter?
Someone who knows a thing or two about pacing is Jordan Foster (better known online as Project Marathon Girl). The running coach, blogger and race pacer (she paced runners to an incredible 1h 30m finish at the Limassol half marathon in 2019) tells Stylist: “Being able to pace yourself well can be the difference between a great run (or race) or a terrible one.
“If you go out too quickly, you risk ‘hitting the wall’ and the final few miles of your run could end up being pretty miserable!” But, Foster stresses, “this is why we train – so we can find our easy pace, our not so comfortable pace and our all-out, all guns blazing pace.”
Knowing what speed to run at is a skill in itself and it’s one that it can take a while to learn. But if you want to improve, Foster says, “you need to include a mix of all speeds across various runs, as this will help to build your aerobic fitness, increase your speed and aid recovery.”
What should your pace feel like?
“This should feel super comfortable – you should be able to hold a conversation and not be breathless. If you imagine a scale of one to 10 with 10 being your maximum effort, you want to be aiming for around three or four.”
“I like to call this pace ‘comfortably uncomfortable’. It should feel like you are putting effort in, but not to the point you are gasping for breath or working at your top effort. Try to aim for around five or six out of 10.”
“This, quite simply, is the pace you need to run to achieve a certain time, be that a 25-minute 5k, or a four-hour marathon. It is important to include this pace during your training so that you know what it feels like and hopefully, by the end of your training block, this will feel like an achievable pace.”
You’ll notice that Foster talks in terms of how a pace ‘feels’, rather than setting out specific numbers. That’s important – even when you’re a ridiculously fast runner like she is. For her, using that relative perceived effort (RPE) scale is more useful than stats because it’s consistency that matters for many of us.
“If you are consistent with your running, you will notice improvements quite quickly and that can be a real confidence boost when you realise that your runs have started to feel a bit easier,” she says. Without noticing, your pace will probably pick up too.
How to improve your speed
If you’ve managed to do your first non-stop 5k, it’s time to work on upping your confidence and speed. Foster offers a session that she says is great for beginners because “the efforts are only a minute long, so it’s a great way to test pushing your pace. Good luck!”
Jordan Foster’s beginner’s plan for running faster
Warm-up: 10-15 minutes easy running
Workout: 10 x 1-minute hard effort, with 1-minute walk/easy jog recovery
Cool-down: 10-15 minutes easy running
For more running tips, check out Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.