Deciding on a long run pace is often more challenging than runners expect. Even if we allow our body to naturally settle into a pace, we often question whether or not this pace is “correct”. When given the choice, most runners would complete their long runs at a moderately easy effort – but is this what’s best in training?
Does pace matter on long runs?
The short answer is yes, your long run pace is very important. However, it’s often not what most runners expect.
It turns out that many, if not most, runners are actually completing their long runs at a pace that is too fast. Running too fast for a long run can not only tire your body out more quickly, but minimizes the physiological benefits that come from a long run.
Should all long runs be easy pace?
While an easy long run pace is certainly the most common, there can be a few different pace designations depending on its purpose in training.
Most long runs serve to help improve overall endurance, increase mileage and provide practice for long distances on race day. However, some long runs are designated as “race pace” miles, which often means running significantly faster than an easy pace.
If you find yourself with a training plan that gives no specific guidelines for your long run pace, in most cases, it’s safe to assume that it should be completed at an easy effort.
What is the optimal long run pace?
Knowing that a long run pace is meant to be easy is usually not very helpful. Many runners assume this means a pace that doesn’t feel difficult, but even this assumption leaves most running too fast.
A common guideline for the easy long run pace is that is should fall somewhere between 55% – 75% of your 5k effort.
This means that if you complete your 5k at a 10:00 minute/mile pace, your long run pace would actually be about 25% to 45% slower. An easy long run for this runner would be completed at a 12 – 15 minute/mile pace.
While this guideline provides a helpful way to visualize just how slow a long run pace should be, completing the math can be a bit tricky and feel like an unnecessary effort.
How to Determine Long Run Pace
If you’re not keen on calculating a lot of percentages and adding them to your 5k pace, there are a few different methods you could try.
Estimation Based on Goal Pace
The simplest way to determine your long run pace is unfortunately the least accurate. However, if you’re simply hoping to check and make sure your pace is in the correct range, this simple estimation might be all you need.
The pace for an easy long run should be 45 – 120 seconds slower per mile than your goal pace. For example, if your goal race pace is 10:15 minutes/mile, your long run pace should be anywhere between 11:00 – 12:15 minutes/mile.
It’s important to note that this method is simply a generalization, meaning that many runners may fall slightly outside of this range. Some runners might find success with a long run pace that is slightly closer to their goal pace, while others might need to stretch it even further than 120 seconds slower per mile.
Calculation Based on Heart Rate
A significantly more personalized, and therefore accurate, method of determining long run pace is to use your heart rate for calculations. However, while this method is more accurate than the simple estimation above, it still is subject to variability.
According to this method, the pace for an easy long run should be run at 70% of your working heart rate. To determine this, we’ll need to make a few calculations.
- Maximum heart rate: 220 – age
- Working heart rate: max HR – resting HR
- Long run pace: 0.7 x working HR
Let’s break this down a bit more.
Maximum heart rate can be estimated by simply subtracting your age from 220. This method is a bit general, so if you have access to any heart rate tracking (such as that on a smart watch or heart rate strap), this will be significantly more accurate. However, 220 minus age still gives a good estimation.
Next, working heart rate is calculated by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. If you don’t know your resting heart rate, simply tracking your pulse for one minute while at rest will give you a good idea.
Finally, find 70% of your working heart rate to determine your long run pace – this can be done by multiplying 0.7 x working HR. To use this information correctly, you’ll want to monitor your heart rate throughout your long runs to ensure it stays in the correct zone.
4 Benefits of Easy Pace Long Runs
Many runners mistakenly assume that as long as they feel comfortable at a certain pace, it’s okay to continue even if it is slightly faster than they “should” be running. However, many studies and coaches have effectively demonstrated that there are multiple benefits to running at a slow, easy pace.
Sticking to your easy long run pace is surprisingly beneficial. There is a specific purpose for the long run, one which often can only be achieved by maintaining the correct slow, easy pace. Here are some of the benefits.
Trains the body to burn fat as fuel
If you run slow enough for a long enough period of time, your body will eventually deplete its glycogen stores and turn to fat for fuel. This encourages overall efficiency as well as promotes a higher calorie burn.
Improves efficiency of oxygen use
Engaging in an easy long run pace can help your body improve the way it utilizes oxygen over time. This in turn can help increase your efficiency as a runner, boost endurance, and improve your cardiovascular fitness.
Boosts endurance without injury risk
Long runs are a great way to train your body to run longer and farther distances without the risk of injury that comes from fast, hard workouts.
Supports capillary and mitochondrial development
Speaking of cardiovascular efficiency, an easy long run pace supports both capillary and mitochondrial development. This in turn improves your cardiovascular fitness, eventually resulting in adapting to running longer and faster paces.
Finding the Correct Long Run Pace in Training
Much like every runner’s goals, commitment and ability levels are different, so are their paces. What works for one runner might not work for the next. It’s important to take the time to evaluate your long run pace in relation to your own training and goals.
Finding a balance of hard and easy training will set you up for success with any goal. Sticking in the moderate training zone sets you up to miss out on some important recovery benefits as well as anything you would gain from speed or interval workouts.
It is estimated that nearly 75% of runners complete their runs in this moderate training zone – which is neither aerobic or anaerobic. Avoid getting stuck in this trap by accepting that your long run pace is likely much slower than you think – which therefore sets yourself up to really push it on the hard days.
Finding the right pace takes a bit of trial and error, as well as time experience. However, once you find it, your training (both mentally and physically) is sure to benefit.