Speed and distance devices that track running pace in real time are pretty darn useful. Not only do they tell you how fast you’re running at any given moment, but they can also be used to establish appropriate target paces for different kinds of workouts and even races. However, they have important limitations.
Suppose you use your speed and distance device to establish a goal pace for the 10K run leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon. But when you come out of T2 and start running at that pace, it feels really easy. What should you do? Now suppose your target pace feels much harder than expected. Again, what should you do?
In both cases, you’d better listen to your body. Ultimately, every triathlete has to race by feel. No technology will ever be able to substitute for your own perceptual sense of your capabilities. That’s because perception of effort not only accurately reflects an athlete’s performance capacity but also determines performance limits. New research on the role of the brain during endurance exercise suggests that exhaustion occurs not when the muscles stop working, but instead when the level of suffering becomes intolerably high. Optimal pacing in races is therefore a matter of using perception of effort to feel one’s way to the maximum speed that can be sustained to the finish line without reaching that suffering limit first.
Other research has demonstrated that the art of pacing improves with experience. Beginning athletes tend to misjudge their maximum sustainable pace. Also, tolerance for suffering tends to increase with experience. Overreliance on devices to regulate running pace in training may slow this process of learning the art of pacing through experience.
Your ability to pace yourself by your own perceptions is not only important in races and hard workouts, but it’s also important in all kinds of workouts, including recovery sessions. Recovery sessions tend to follow hard workouts, which means they are performed in a pre-fatigued state. Consequently, athletes tend to feel lousier at familiar paces than they do when they’re fresh. You need to be willing to run as slowly as necessary to get what you need from them, no matter what your device says.
The following table presents guidelines that will help you perform different types of workouts at appropriate intensities by feel instead of pace. Leave your device at home at least once a week to accelerate your learning of the art of pacing. And even when you are wearing your device, continue to let your body have the final say.
Recovery: Find a tempo that feels very comfortable, even relaxing.
Base Aerobic: Find a natural, almost automatic tempo that takes you through the designated duration efficiently but without any strain.
Endurance: Find a tempo that, if held consistently, will become hard only in the last 20 percent or so of the designated duration.
Threshold: Sustain the fastest tempo possible with your breathing completely under control. The overall effort should feel “comfortably hard.”
Intervals: Find the fastest pace you can sustain through the end of the last interval. For example, if you’re doing 12×1:00 with 2:00 recoveries, start interval No. 1 at the fastest pace you can sustain through the end of interval No. 12.