How to Figure Out a Realistic Goal Pace

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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How to Figure Out a Realistic Goal Pace

It’s a familiar scene: You’re excitedly signing up for a race when suddenly, the question box pops up that asks you something you’re unprepared to answer: “What’s your projected finish time?” You feel slightly defensive and simultaneously curious: What am I capable of? Goal pace, or the pace that you will average throughout a race, is something that can vary based on a slew of factors, including distance, terrain, elevation, weather conditions, training and even your mental state the day you toe the starting line. If you’re not entirely sure how to figure out what yours should be, you’re certainly not alone.

“There are multiple camps as to how you should find the optimal pace for yourself on race day,” says Grayson Wickham, DPT, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and founder of Movement Vault. “Your goal is to push yourself as much as you can, while maintaining a consistent energy level and effort during your run.”

If you expend too much effort and energy early on, you will be dragging and likely slow down toward the end of the race. If you pace yourself too conservatively and have too slow a pace, you run the risk of selling yourself short and saving too much energy or effort. The Goldilocks pace is one that requires consistent effort and energy throughout a race, possibly even increasing your pace, energy level and effort as the race progresses, adds Wickham.

“Think of your pace as a line graph. The line should be relatively flat, with a slight increase as the race progresses,” he says. “You do not want an up and down line on your graph as this means you are running fast and then slowing down.”

HOW DO I FIGURE OUT MY PACE?

To set a benchmark for your pacing, a great place to start is with a 1-mile test, suggests Wickham. “Run your best 1-mile run to determine a current benchmark, which will help you figure out a possible pace for longer runs,” he says, adding that it’s also a short benchmark that you can perform often to help you track your progress over time


READ MORE > WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW YOUR 5K PACE


Then, using a pacing calculator you can translate your time to other distances, including longer ones like the 5K, half-marathon and marathon, as well as estimates for shorter, even speedier interval work. If you’re not big on technology, Andrew Samuels, an RRCA-certified run coach at Mile High Run Club, suggests basing your pace off a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale.

“Your current fitness at each distance is determined by your pace while running at a particular rate of perceived exertion,” he says. “Think 90–95% RPE for the mile, 85–90% for 5K, 80–85% for 10K, 70–80% for half-marathon and 60–70% for marathon.”

For example, if you run a 10:00 mile, then here are some projected race times:

  1. 5K in 33:10 (10:42/mile)
  2. 10K in 1:09:10 (11:09/mile)
  3. Half-marathon in 2:32:51 (11:40/mile)
  4. Marathon in 5:18:42 (12:09/mile)

Depending on your experience level, time commitment and how long your training cycle is, Samuels says runners can typically expect their current fitness to improve between 4–10% leading up to the big day.

“Everyone is different,” notes Wickham. “And to make things even more complicated, everyone is different on a given day. Other variables like sleep, diet and stress come into play while you are running your race. This is why the best pace plan includes learning about your body’s potential through previous training runs so that you will know when you should slightly increase or decrease your pace.”

HOW OFTEN DO I RUN MY GOAL PACE?

Perhaps a moment of relief: You won’t actually be training at your goal pace very often. Regardless of what event you’re training for, your weekly runs should be a mix of speedwork, tempo runs and long runs. “During speed runs you will be doing shorter intervals at faster paces, during tempo runs you will be doing longer, sustained uncomfortable efforts, and during long runs you will be covering more miles at slower paces,” says Samuels.

In other words: Depending on the distance you are training for, you may run your goal pace for some efforts during one particular type of training run and not at all during another type of training run. For example, if you’re training for a shorter distance, you may hit some goal pace efforts early on in your speed runs. If you are training for a middle distance, you may spend time running at goal pace during some tempo efforts. “The idea isn’t to prioritize running at goal pace, but rather to trust that each workout serves a specific purpose and it’s putting them all together that will result in overall improvements in your fitness and speed,” he adds.

HOW CAN I GET A FASTER GOAL PACE?

To get faster you have to run faster — but do it smart. Slowly build your volume and intensity, recommends Wickham. “Always stick to the ‘less is more’ principle, and build up your runs and pace as you progress,” he adds. “If you push yourself too hard, too early in your training or on race day, you run the risk of bonking — aka running out of energy, becoming fatigued, burnt out and even injured.”

Aside from moving at a faster clip, strength training can unlock huge speed gains, adds Samuels. “Explosive exercises will result in faster running over shorter distances,” he says, highlighting the importance of focusing on both the core and posterior chain, as those are the major muscle groups utilized midstride. “Exercises performed with moderate resistance will result in sustainable speed over longer distances.”

Not sure where to start on the strength front? Take a look at our Runner’s Guide to Strength Training.

Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it. 

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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