Progressing through these paces from slowest to fastest is an effective way of learning to run as a beginner
Everything below the waist was hurting and virtually immobile. Head down, I shuffled forward. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. My mind was dulled with exhaustion and pain and my thoughts barely extended beyond the basic act of taking my next step.
Though I could barely raise my head to see them, I was grateful to hear the excited crowds of people lining both sides of the street yelling, “Superman!” and other words of encouragement to my fellow runners and me. There was at least another meter forward in me. 100m at a stretch. The sign we just passed marked 40km done and 2km to the finish of my first marathon, Berlin 1987.
Having finished that marathon in a very respectable time of 4:20, I caught the bug for running. Over the next 20 years, I would go on to complete countless other distance runs from 5km up to and including another two Berlin marathons in 1988 and 1993.
During this time I came to recognize six distinct paces to move at. Having recognized these, I applied them to my own training and races. I also used them as the basis to train new runners as a jog leader for an organization called Jogscotland.
Progressing through these paces from slowest to fastest over weeks of training became extremely effective. Using them as a framework for training, runners developed their capability from virtually no running to be able to complete a fast half marathon.
On longer runs such as marathons, you can start at the fastest pace you are comfortable with and then change to slower paces as you tire. This way, you always have a pace to keep moving forward no matter what the distance.
Whether you’re an absolute novice looking to get into running or an experienced runner trying to get out of a training rut, learning these paces and working between them will bring some benefit to your running.
It may sound like slacking or cheating to some runners but walking, in my opinion, is most definitely a valid pace within a run.
I, for one, was never able to complete a marathon, nor many of my half marathons, without walking at some point. Very often when we are extremely tired from running we will still be able to walk relatively comfortably and hence keep moving forward.
Walking is a great default for recovery during a run to bring your pulse down and give you room to work in terms of heart rate. It is also useful for less fit or experienced runners to walk through refreshment stands so that they can properly relax and take on vital fluids and energy.
As I got older and my fitness started to decline somewhat I used to walk through the refreshment stands on a distance run and take the opportunity to relax, almost as a boxer does when sitting down between rounds. It always made those later stages of the run all the more doable.
Finally, for anyone who has never tried running for anything more than a few hundred meters, or anyone who has been out of running for years, I always recommend a couple of miles walk as the very first training session. This lets you safely and comfortably prepare your body for covering a distance and assess how fit you feel.
Of course, I would still have to finish this section by saying that walking in this context, is still just a part of, or a prelude to, the run. Walking 100% from start to finish is either a separate sport — there are specific walking events — or it is going to result in some very slow finishing times at best if applied to a run.
This simply refers to regular and alternating periods of walking followed by running. You can count steps to achieve this — 100 steps each pace as suggested here — but there is no need to count them. You can run to short times such as a minute at each pace if you have a sports watch or even count lamp posts on a road race.
I first put this into practice during a training run around a three-mile course after I had been out of training for quite some time. Having jogged the full circuit, I wanted to push myself a bit further but I was very tired. On that occasion, I did count paces and the simple act of alternating between walking and running meant that I managed another full three miles before I had to stop.
This is a great pace for people who are unfit or lacking in confidence. It helps you get around a training route with a good deal of running in your session without over-stretching yourself or getting overtired.
I have also found this to be very effective in the latter stages of distance runs such as half marathons to keep you moving through the final, painful few miles at a manageable pace. Since discovering the pace on that first training run after my time out, the last few miles of many of my distance runs have been completed this way.
A note of caution would be that this can be an arduous pace if you have stepped up too soon from walking or if you are recovering from an injury. If you are struggling to keep an exact, even split between walking and running, there’s no harm at all in extending the walks and running a little less.
I’ve even walked several miles with just a five-minute slow jog at each mile marker and still maintained a nine-hour marathon pace.
Once you are feeling quite comfortable running for short periods of time without stopping, the next progression is to start running towards landmarks you can see or are familiar with along the route.
Even if it looks, or feels, tough to reach them, you are more likely to keep running if you know that you will get to walk for a brief rest once you reach the point you are aiming for.
Breaking your runs up this way allows you to get even more running into your route without over-stretching yourself. As with slower paces, it is also a useful fallback on longer runs if you start to get tired.
We were constantly moving to, and through, checkpoints during my military training. This was either to chart our progress along a route or arrive at a feature on the ground which we had targetted. No matter how tired I got, I found it was easier to push on if I could see, or even if you just knew where the next rest was going to be.
The first time I used this method in a run was from around nine miles into my first Berlin Marathon onwards. As I was starting to feel tired and a bit sore at nine miles, the thought of needing to cover another 17.2 miles before I finished was unwelcome, to say the least.
Instead, I just resolved to run to the next refreshment stand where I would walk through and take a rest while taking on some fluids and energy. Where the finish of that marathon seemed an impossible distance away, the next refreshment stand, especially with rest and nourishment, was so much more attainable.
Before I knew it, I’d completed 12 miles, then was in the second half of the run comforted to know that I had found a way to mentally face up to the task of completing the marathon.
Runners should always be cautious not to set the checkpoints for a rest too far apart. You should also be forgiving of yourself if you need a rest between checkpoints. These are simply estimates of manageable chunks of a run, they should not be cast in stone.
It should also be noted that you would need to be very familiar with a route or the route would need to contain clear markers such as kilometer or mile markers before this pace can be used effectively.
This is perhaps the most familiar target pace for anyone who has taken part in a run. That said, it is also the hardest pace to achieve and probably the least common of all the paces. Here, runners simply try to maintain exactly the same running pace regardless of terrain or distance covered.
Personally, I have been able to achieve something similar to this over a short 5km race. I probably wouldn’t even try it for anything over that distance. I’ve always run at my best when my pace varies with the terrain (we’ll cover that a little later). I also rarely get too much beyond 5km before my average pace starts to drop off the more distance I cover.
For any runners who are more comfortable maintaining a steady pace, my brother, for example, the main advantage of this is that you can closely plan your run and predict your finishing time.
On my fastest ever ten-mile road race, I attempted to run at seven-minute miles and finish in 1:10. I trained at a seven-minute mile pace for weeks ahead of the race and just missed the target with a finishing time of 1:12 on race day. This was the only time I really tried to cover a race at a steady jog.
Speedmarching, walking up the hills and running down them, was a pace we often used in the army when trying to cover a distance carrying equipment. We were required to maintain at least 15-minute miles over eight miles to pass what was then called the Combat Fitness Test (CFT). I personally found this was a great pace to adopt in longer runs.
Almost every running route has some form of hills in it and this is a great way to save energy while climbing and maximize speed while descending. The absolute ideal you would aim to achieve using this pace would be to maintain a low and steady heart rate even though the terrain and your pace were constantly changing.
Of course, flat courses that barely have any hills in them are not suitable for this type of pace. Any of the previously mentioned paces can be used on the more flat courses.
For the fitter runners among us who can keep running for long periods of time, a faster adaptation of the speed march is to keep running but vary the length of your stride with the terrain. Run maintaining short strides while climbing hills and open up to longer strides when descending.
Running uphill lifting the knees and using short strides will still conserve energy. Opening out to a much longer stride when descending will create a much faster pace for very little extra effort.
It is while using this pace that I have covered some of my fastest and most successful runs. There’s a tremendous feeling of achievement when being able to keep running up a long steep hill and sheer exhilaration when racing down the other side.
Again, the aim is to try and maintain a steady pulse rate while constantly varying your stride over ever-varying terrain. Aiming for a steady pulse rate at least 20 beats per minute below your max heart rate (given as 200 — your age) means that you are less likely to need to stop or slow down.
A friend of mine who took part in the Beijing Olympics as a triathlete told me that he trains to maintain a steady pulse rate throughout the entire event regardless of which activity he is doing or the terrain.
A major note of caution when adopting this pace however is to be careful on the downhill stretches. I have seen someone striding out during the descent from the summit of Ben Nevis, land on a twisted ankle, and need assistance to get off the mountain.
You also need to have strong legs to keep your balance and maintain longer strides on a descent. This really is a pace only for those who train hard and are highly fit.
As a Jogscotland jog leader, I started a group of new and less than confident runners into these paces in January 2008. We only did one full walk and were soon into alternating walking and running regularly. Somewhere late in February, I remember the elation when some of the group managed to run their first full mile without stopping.
I had the pleasure of seeing one of the women in the group grow in stature and confidence as she progressed into each faster pace over the months that followed. By May she was able to cover all the paces and was training hard varying her pace with the terrain on each of the training runs.
She completed a one-hour 10km run late in May and beat me by some distance on the Great Scottish Run Half Marathon in September 2008. It was great to see someone who was barely able to run for more than a minute at a time in January achieve such incredible success in running in just nine months.
My last distance run was the Great Scottish Run Half Marathon in 2012. By that time, the fastest pace I was comfortable at was a steady jog and so that’s what I started at. Unable to maintain that for too long, I started to run to checkpoints, taking a short walk at each mile marker.
Just past halfway round, there were a few miles which were mostly downhill. I still had the strength in my legs to open my stride up a bit and increase my pace for those few miles.
About ten miles in my energy was pretty much gone. From there I started alternate walking and jogging for about two to three minutes at each pace. I maintained that until I finally reached the finish.
In the end, I finished, pretty exhausted but very elated in 2:54. I guess just under three hours is pretty slow for a half marathon but it was a finish nonetheless and it was a great example of how alternating between the six paces I have described in this post can give you a pace at which you are always moving forward.