Race Pace Conditioning for Runners

Attend any local race, watch coverage of running events, or listen at sporting goods stores…runners will commonly discuss and compare their “pace.” At the heart of any length race, whether it’s a 5K, 10K or 50K, is pace. Pace can make or break a runner’s performance. To the casual observer of the event, the runners simply run through a mass of pit-a-pat and cheering crowds. However, every runner has a set pace, and has worked for months to get it right.

So running isn’t just running? The starting gun goes off, the group of people in sleeveless T-shirts advance and appear later, a little more sweaty and panting, at the finish line. That is the basic theme. Start, run, finish. Look closer. Some brokers are reviewing oversized watches. Some are right behind others, the determination in their eyes turning sharp. Everyone is reaping the rewards of a well-constructed beat.

Rhythm is not just about speed. It’s not just about endurance. It’s not just about breathing. It is all of this and more. If a normal person who doesn’t run started with the group, he or she might run just fine…for a while. Perhaps this person will run at the head of the pack in a triumphant “aha!” and topple the course with pardonable glee. But if this person hasn’t set a pace, he or she is doomed to regress in a few minutes to a huffing and puffing walker. Can this same person run that race, stay with the pack, and finish (although perhaps not win at first) successfully? Yes, if he creates, maintains and respects a good rhythm. Runners create a rhythm through training. An Olympic runner will have a fast, fine-tuned pace that will win all but a few competitions. A normal mortal who just likes to run, and perhaps compete, will have a slower pace (8 minute miles compared to an Olympian’s 5 minute miles), but the mechanics are similar. A rhythm is created through regular and consistent runs, synchronized breathing, and conditioning. A set rhythm, once established, can be accelerated over time. But it takes a lot of work for most people.

Consistency: Runners who would like to run should do so consistently. Training schedules vary from person to person, but the general idea is the same: be consistent. Distance, terrain, or slope may change, but consistency must be maintained. If a runner chooses a 5-day-a-week schedule, he can run, walk/jog, or sprint at will, as long as those 5 days are consistent. The remaining two days can be used for complete rest, or just for walking. Varies, as mentioned above, based on individual preference and athletic ability/health concerns.

Synchronized Breathing: It’s easy to tell the fitness level of any runner simply by listening to how that runner breathes. Fast, panting breaths within the first mile will generally signify a lower level of fitness, while rhythmic, easy, timed breaths (or inaudible breathing) will lean more toward a higher level of fitness. The key with breathing is to give your body the oxygen it needs, in a constant intake, without overdoing it. The oxygen level will directly correlate to the pace. If the runner is trained to go six miles on 2/2 breaths, then he or she can expect to do well at that set pace. What does that mean? 2/2 breaths are two inhalations for two strides, then two exhalations for two strides. Some runners can breathe like a “waltz” (1-2-3, 1-2-3) with 3/3. Or even three inhalations and two exhalations. Like consistency needs, breathing will vary from runner to runner. The rhythm will be established around this pattern. If a runner can run 8 minute miles on 3/2 breaths, that’s the pace. Maybe this runner wants to move up to the 7-minute miles. Adjust the consistency to more run days than walk days, increase your breathing by half, maybe, and voila, a slightly faster pace. A runner will only be able to run well according to what his physical rhythm allows. Sprint out of it for the fourth mile of a 10K, and yes, a runner can still finish, but the cardiopulmonary and muscular systems will have a much harder time. A broken rhythm will equal bad results.

Conditioning: Fitness improves with better conditioning. Like the rhythm. Start with a good, consistent program, get into a good, consistent breathing pattern, and then condition to up the ante. Sprints, hills, difficult terrain (sand) and wind are good conditioners to “mix things up”. Keep in mind, however, that these tools can be harder on the ligaments and joints than simple, even work. Sprints and hills can increase the chance of shin splints or knee pain. The sandy and difficult terrain can be hard on the knees and ankles. Be careful when adding them to the program. A well-grounded, consistent running program will prepare the body for conditioning: add hills slowly and easily. Walk through them if you must.

Racing Tip: Everyone has a set pace, as we mentioned before. When a field of runners jumps over the gun and spreads out across the course, the fastest people of course take the lead, with pace speeds fanning out accordingly. A runner may choose to keep up with another runner who is moving at relatively the same speed. If his pace is a little faster than this other person’s, he goes ahead and passes. Your rhythm is your rhythm. Stay true to that. If another runner is only slightly faster, but you can keep up with him for a while, that’s okay. But don’t break the pace to match theirs, as he will tire faster and have a much harder time. However, he continues conditioning. Maybe in time, that faster pace will be yours, and you can end up with shorter and shorter times. Check the published times once the race is over. Some will have a name, age group and, on the far right, rhythm. The more you train, the lower that number, your pace time, will be.

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