Ask Pete: Should I Race By Effort Or By Pace?

Racing with a pre-determined goal pace fails to take into account race-day variables and will lead to sub-optimal results.


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What’s the difference between racing by effort or by pace?

In your books and articles, you write that runners should race by effort, not pace. But how am I supposed to gauge 5K or 10K effort level without targeting a pace? – Albert


Effort refers to your body’s ability to perform on a given day under the conditions present for that run; pace is nothing more than a time measurement of that single, specific effort.

Runners tend to put the cart before the horse. We’ve become so reliant upon the tools (e.g., GPS watches) that measure our running performance that we’ve begun to think the measurement is the performance. It isn’t.

Let’s make this simple. You enter a 5K race. What effort will you run during the race? The answer depends on whether you’re racing on a track or up and down the side of a mountain—or on pavement, grass, trail, or a combination of all three. Or on a summer day or in the snow. Or on whether you start at the start line or packed like sardines a thousand people back in the corral. Or on whether you slept 8 hours the previous night or lay awake regretting a triple-helping of spicy seafood pasta.

Your pace is easy: It’s the timed result for that 5K.

Now flash-forward to your next post-5K repetition workout. You plan to run 12 x 400m at 5K effort. Do you target the pace you ran for your 5K race? No, just as on race day, you run the effort that matches your ability to run 5K on that day—on whatever surface and under whatever conditions are present for your workout.

workout on a track
photo: 101 Degrees West

For more on race-day, effort-based running, I’m going to crib from my book, Fast 5K:

Even Pace: You run each mile (or kilometer) of your race at the same, pre-determined pace (e.g., 6-minutes-per-mile). The problem with this approach is twofold. First, terrain, weather, and the presence of other runners makes it hard to do. Second, you simply don’t know what the “right” pace will be for race day—guess too fast, and your legs won’t last; guess too slow, and you rob yourself of the chance to snag a massive PR.

Even Effort: You choose a consistent level of energy expenditure that feels right for race day. You rely on external and internal cues to adjust your pace. Your effort won’t “feel” the same throughout the 5K. You’ll experience increasing fatigue as the race progresses. But you’ll burn energy at a consistent rate. To succeed with this approach takes practice, practice, practice. The good news is that a proper training program provides that practice.

Here’s an example of how a pace-based approach can sabotage a race. Let’s say you’re racing a 5K. And let’s say your pre-selected pace, perfectly executed, brings you to the first mile mark 10-15 seconds faster than what you should have run given unforeseen race dynamics that changed the effort of that pace—maybe you expected a paved course, but most of the first mile is grass, or the mile climbed several hundred feet, or you had to weave through runners after a crowded start, or maybe it’s just a down day for you. Congratulations. 10-15 seconds faster than 5K pace is 3K pace, a race that is less than two miles. With more than two miles to go in your race, you now have less than a mile left in your gas tank. Trust me, this won’t turn out well.

Bottom line: You always race by effort—it’s just that when you base that effort on a preconceived notion of pace, sometimes the effort isn’t right for the actual race you’re running.


Pete’s freebee training tip: When it comes to judging effort during a race, I’ve always used a simple trick. Every minute or so, I ask myself, “Can I finish the entire race distance at my current effort level?” If you’re being honest with yourself, the answer will be self-evident. For practice, I do the same during hard VO2max workouts; if I’m expending more effort during early reps than I feel I can sustain for all the remaining reps, I slow down. By practicing effort-based running during workouts, I can easily implement it during races.

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From PodiumRunner