Don’t Chase The Pace: Exertion-Based Training

Dreaded sight on when stalking the weather for a workout or a race.

In keeping with the theme of tips for heat-wave training, I think summer time is a perfect opportunity to work on running by exertion level.  Heat and humidity can often confound attempts to stick to a specific pace, and can leave you feeling you have failed if you didn’t nail all your splits.   Also, trying to push through your workout and keep to your prescribed paces on a hot day can alter the intended training adaptations for that workout, rendering you depleted and less able to recover in time for the next stimulus.

Hot weather is a factor in training for at least a quarter of the year for many of us, and even more for some of us, so running by feel instead of by pace can be key for keeping up with our quality training even on the hottest of days.  Plus, we can all use a vacation from GPS now and then!

Different coaches use different terminology to describe the various exertion levels, but I’ll present the classification system I use, which was taught to me by Joe McConkey, the head coach at the Boston Running Center:

Easy (E): Exactly as it sounds, a pace that is easy for you to sustain.  This is a pace in which you should be able to speak in complete sentences without getting too winded.  Recovery runs and the proverbial “junk miles” are run at this pace.

Easy Moderate (EM): This is still an aerobic pace, but it should be slightly faster than your easy pace.  You should be able to recover quickly from an easy-moderate run while still feeling you covered the ground well with good stride turnover.  You can liken this pace to marathon goal pace.

Moderate (M): Moderate running is challenging and should feel increasingly difficult as you cover the prescribed distance or time period.  During the first quarter of the run or interval, you should feel you are moving quickly but the effort is manageable.  Then, in the middle portion, you should feel the pace is sustainable but requires focus, effort and concentration to keep it constant.  In the last quarter, you should feel you are working hard to maintain your pace through to the end.  This type of effort is akin to 3K-5K pace, and is typical for longer repeats or tempo runs.

Moderate Hard (MH): As Coach McConkey describes, this is the pace you would use to try to run your best mile.  A strong effort, difficult to maintain for long, this is not an appropriate pace for tempo runs but can be used for shorter repeats.

Hard (H): Sprint pace!  Run like heck for very short spurts of distance or time.

So how can you use an exertion-based system?  Just substitute the intended pace for a given workout with the appropriate exertion level and run by feel, instead of by your watch.  Who knows – you may even find yourself scrapping your paces and running by effort in perfect conditions!

Do you ever run by exertion level instead of pace?  How hard is it for you to ditch the GPS?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. Great post!

    I always thought junk miles were running miles faster than easy, but slower than mp (at least that’s what jack Daniels says, I think!)

    I’d add in tempo effort, which would be about 15k-hm race pace.

    I do most of my easy runs this way. And even though I typically use a gps or run on a track for harder efforts, I tend to run those by feel. For tempos that means I’m often slow a few seconds (which inevitably annoys me, but then again I’m stubborn and usually won’t force the pace down either) and for track workouts I tend to get in a good groove where I hit the same times without checking splits or forcing it. When I’m in shape and training I tend to have a good internal pacer if I let it happen. If I overthink things or micromanage the pace then I’m all over the place. I think this is all really important though, because so many runners I know look at the goal paces like the bible. They have to hit them or else! Obviously, that’s not always a good thing to do and often defeats the purpose of the workout as you say!

    1. Yes, good points/additions. I also think an excellent time to use exertion-based training is when coming back from an injury (or from having a baby!). That’s another time when letting go of the pace fixation can keep you on track with your workout goals without feeling discouraged about not stacking up to the workout paces of your pre-injury (or pre-baby) self.