Back of the Pack Running

Yesterday was a tough run for my MIT pace group. After coming off a 2 mile fall-back training run last Saturday, it was time to punch-out 7 miles again yesterday.

Our course was a little tougher than usual because we ran the Hills of Worthington. What exactly, you ask, are the Hills of Worthington? A little, older neighborhood that is pretty to look at, but surprisingly hilly for Columbus, Ohio.

After the first major incline, several of the runners in my group slowed their pace and fell back behind the group. I fell back with them and discovered that a few were tired and working on breathing and still a few others had heart rates that had skyrocketed. They were breathless, struggling to speak and discouraged about falling behind the group, but slowing down is what they should be doing.

As we tackled the hills, our pace evened out from a 13 minute mile to a 14 minute mile to a 14:30. I heard them say things like, “I’m too slow,” “I’m always the last one back here,” “Go ahead, Sara, I don’t want to mess up your training,” and “I’m holding you back.”

Truth is – the back of the pack is where I like to be, guys. And it’s where I used to spend a lot of my training time. I am a back-of-the-pack runner. There is nothing more motivating for me than to run with you guys at the back of the pack for three or four weeks only to turn around one day and notice you aren’t back there anymore. You’re in the lead and you’re looking great. I tell you I remember when you said you would always be slow, the last to finish, and you smile sheepishly and say, “I know! Now look at me! I can’t believe it!” Well, I can! To watch you grow as runners is nothing short of amazing. Don’t be so hard on yourselves in the beginning.

While giving thought to what pace you should be running on any given day enables you to shape your training to meet specific goals, it shouldn’t be the sole factor for determining your performance, especially as a beginning runner. Remember, our long runs form the basis of all of our training, and should actually not be run at our goal (or race) pace.

Perhaps the easiest way to be sure you’re running at the desired pace is to use a heart rate monitor, but many people simply learn over time how their bodies feel at certain training paces. As beginning runners, many of you are doing that now and you are right on track for learning about your bodies and how it feels to be a runner!

I’ve put together some brief info (see and Runner’s World for more details) to help you understand pacing and how your runs should feel.

Easy Pace: Occurs at about 60 to 70 percent of your maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max), or 70 to 75 percent of your maximal heart rate (MHR).

It is a good recovery pace in between faster workout days, and so in this sense it is your “normal” training pace. When this pace is held for longer runs, it’s a useful way to attenuate your body’s glycogen depletion and rely more on fat for energy. This is what we try to run on Saturdays and it is okay if you fall behind a 13 minute mile! Remember, 13 minutes per mile may be what you are aiming for during your race so slowing it down a bit, especially during a difficult training run, is perfectly fine.

These runs are more about putting in the time than pushing the intensity. They will help you become accustomed to fluid loss and other cellular stresses. Easy pace is the one at which any training regimen begins—and should remain for three weeks before introducing faster running. Focus on light turnover and rhythmic breathing.

Your Easy Pace is about one minute per mile slower than your racing pace. The many fans of easy-paced long efforts contend that these runs allow you to get in your miles, with all the desired physical and mental benefits, while limiting your risk of injury. To increase your speed over time, you can enter races (5K’s or 10K’s are good options if you are training for a Half), or do faster workouts on other days of the week (when the mileage is lower).

Threshold Pace: Occurs at about 88 percent of VO2max or 90 percent of MHR.

This pace provides quality training with limited stress. For many runners, it’s slower than 5K race pace by about 24 seconds per mile. These are the “tempo runs” we incorporate into our training, and they should feel comfortably hard. You can use threshold pace for other running, too; such as mile repeats with one-minute rests in between.

The pace is best for improving the body’s ability to clear lactic acid from the blood during exercise. The importance of this increases with distance. Also note that, at 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than threshold running, there is a useful pace for long-distance runners, often referred to as “marathon pace”. You can use this as an effective alternative to the typical easy run. Just avoid any non-specific training intensity that falls elsewhere on the continuum between your easy and threshold paces. In other words, don’t do too much, too fast!

Interval Pace: The goal is to eventually achieve 98 percent of MHR for brief periods of time.

This is hard running over short distances. Intervals should never be longer than five minutes, and they are usually much shorter. Intervals train the body to carry on through prolonged periods at VO2max. As a guide, your pace should approximate a pace that you could not keep up for longer than 15 minutes. Keep in mind, that this is not all-out running.

Running intervals faster than this pace will introduce fatigue and possibly injury; it will certainly compromise your next training day. Remember that you’re not running at MHR for 15 minutes. (If you were to actually perform a 15-minute run at this pace as a test, you would not be running at MHR the entire time.). I like to run intervals on the treadmill because I can work on my speed and break up the monotony.

Recovery Pace:– Go as slow as you want to!

Get out after a long run – usually after a day of rest – and get moving! Work the stiffness out of your legs and enjoy the scenery. You can go as slow as you like. This is recovery and you should not be pushing your pace.

Helpful Tools:

Pace Calculator – Calculate your pace, distance, and time.
Pace Converter – Convert your pace from one unit of measurement to another.
Finish Time Calculator – Calculate when a race participant will finish a race based on how far he or she has already run.

Goal of the Week:
Incorporate one tempo run into your training this week, if you feel like you want to work on your speed. Try it on a day when you only have to run two or three miles. Remember, you are right where you need to be!

Inspirational Quote of the Week:
“In running, it doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack or last. You can say, ‘I have finished.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that.” – Fred Lebow, 1932-1994

Until the next mile marker,


  1. Sometimes it’s hard to hold back when you’re watching the ‘gazelles’ run by, but we have to realize they’re different animals. It’s doubtful I’ll ever be a gazelle, but more of a water buffalo. Who cares!? We’re all out there giving it our all at our own pace. I’ve done a great amount of training on my own, but love getting the positive feedback of others running by.

    I’m MORE impressed with the “Lucky 13’s” than the gazelles, because they’re outside of their comfort zone. You and Duane are great coaches and give them (us) what you they (us) need to cross that finish line successful.

  2. Great words to run by Sara! And awesome advice–thoroughly enjoying your blog:)

    And Bill, I don’t know you, but I love your comment “It’s doubtful I’ll ever be a gazelle, but more of a water buffalo. Who cares!?” haha that’s me! A water buffalo! I run in Victorian Village where most people fly by me but I keep going, knowing that I’m giving it my all at my own pace:):)

  3. I really enjoy your blog and this is a great post. I’m new to running since last summer and took part in a ‘Step Into Running’ program by our local runnng group. I’m very slow and always finish in the back of the pack and had great ‘coaches’ running with me. This summer I’m volunteering to be one of the ‘coaches’ for the back of the pack new runners – my way of givng back. Keep up the great work! You’re an inspiration!

  4. I can tell you are an excellent coach and that you totally love coaching! You have the perfect attitude, and everything seems like a perfect fit. Keep it up, lady!

  5. Sara, thanks for pointing me to this post. It has given me a very clear picture of what each of these runs should look like.

    You really ought to write a book. You have explained it simply and concisely.


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