Anatomy of a Long, Treadmill, Pace Run

Anatomy of a Long, Treadmill, Pace Run

How to do it.

I’ve found that many of you folks like me to go into the gory details of some of the more technical workouts that I do in my training.  I tend to shy away from giving overt advice on training because I’m more of a practitioner than a coach.  I can tell you in detail how I do a workout, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about!

Let’s classify these write-ups as more ‘directional learned life lessons’ than prescriptive training advice!

Disclaimers aside, I’ll share with you the nuances of a workout I’ll call the long, treadmill, pace run.

What is it?

A pace run is a very common type of workout that is a form of tempo run.  This type of workout is typically in the last 3rd of your training for a race and is typically race specific.  The goal of this workout is to prepare you to hold the target race pace of your, well, target race.

Coaches have always loved these workouts.  They build on top of your aerobic base and strength training with race specific paces and efforts.  If done right they can give you confidence that you have the ability to take on your target race.

These can be done outside on the road, or even on the track, but since they are heart rate or effort based they are a perfect fit for the treadmill.  They require a heart rate monitor.

By the way, this is a hard workout.

Let’s use an example of a workout I did this cycle – a 12 mile pace run.  In this scenario you start with a 1 mile warm up.  Then you run 3 miles in zone 2.  Then you run 3 miles in zone 3.  Then you run 4 miles in zone 4.  Then you run a 1 mile cool down.

I know this looks like a step-up run, and it is in a way, but the focus of this run is that last longer part of the work out.  This is going to be, if you do it right, somewhere around 10 – 30 seconds a mile faster than your target race pace.  It’s about holding that race pace on tired legs.

Yes, it is a monster of a workout.  It is specific to the last 3rd of your training campaign when you are race-tuning your fitness.  It is designed to create cumulative fatigue.  This means at the end, when you are doing those zone 4 effort miles you are not just suffering from the zone 4 effort you are also absorbing the cumulative fatigue of the 7 miles of escalating effort going into the zone 4 effort.

(I’ll pause here to say if you don’t know what heart rate or effort zones are, search my website for heart rate training articles. (  But for the sake of brevity, zone 2 is conversational, zone 3 is starting to get into marathon race pace and zone 4 is getting race pace effort.)

This workout is about effort level, not pace, but at this point in your training you should be able to correlate pace to effort with some general precision.

The other nuance about this workout is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  This is not the hardest workout of the week.  This is one of the midweek workouts – for example either Tuesday or Thursday. There are typically 4 other runs in this week with 2 of those being other hard workouts, including a monster long run on the preceding or following Sunday.

My point is that I’m typically going into this workout on tired legs.  Not wrecked legs, because at this point in your cycle you should be able to handle the training volume, but tired legs.  This adds to the cumulative fatigue aspect.  And that is the big training payoff of this workout.  Being able to execute at race effort when you are properly knackered!  That’s what a race is! Asking your body to perform when it’s tired!

Using a treadmill for this workout comes with some set-up considerations.  Make sure you have a bottle of your favorite sports nutrition at hand.  Typically there’s a bottle holder type place on the treadmill.  Make sure you have a sweat towel of some sort at hand because you are going to generate some heat with this effort.  Understand that most treadmills in gyms are set to only allow 60 minute workouts, so think ahead to where you’ll be 60 minutes in and plan a convenient spot to hit the reset button for another 60.

OK – Let’s get this workout started.

Set the incline to either .5 or 1% to get the equivalent of outside running.  The first mile is a warm up mile.  The goal is to warm up.  Set the pace to 30 seconds to 1 minute per mile slower than your normal “out on a casual run with friends” pace.  For me right now, my easy runs are in the 8:30 per mile range and I would set my warm up pace at 9’s or even 9:30’s.

This might feel slow.  But, get over yourself, it’s a warm up.  Don’t be impatient. This is a long workout.  You can speed it up a little if you feel good but commit to that slow warm up pace for the first mile regardless of how slow it feels.  Relax.  Shake out the muscles.  Practice good form.

Now as you ease into that first step you should have an estimate of what pace will give you the zone 2 effort you’re looking for for the next 3 miles.  Understand the cumulative nature of this workout.  You’re looking for a zone 2 average across the 3 miles and you’re looking to end the 3 miles in mid-to-high zone 2.  Your heart rate is going to creep over the course of the miles.  The treadmill is digital.  Your heart is analog.

This means that you may start the first step at a 1.8 or 1.9 heart rate but finish it at a 2.4.  The way you do this is to estimate the pace, have patience and ease into it.

My example is that I’ve been training in zone 2 at around an 8:30 mile.  I’ll start by setting the pace at an 8:27 (treadmills have weird pace set points).  I’ll stick with that for at least 2 minutes and see what my heart rate does.  If my heart rate is hanging out around 1.8, for instance, I’ll bump up the speed a notch or two to an 8:22 or an 8:17 and give it another 2 minutes to see where my HR stabilizes.

If it still doesn’t get into zone 2 I’ll push it again and take another 2-minute ease in period.  I’ll keep repeating that until I find a pace that puts me in a low zone 2.  Then I’ll hang in that pace, keeping an eye on my HR.  If my HR starts to climb up into zone 3 I’ll back it off slowly the same way.

For the next 3 mile step I’ll use the same process.  I know a zone 3 pace for me right now is going to be somewhere in the 7:50 minutes per mile.  I’ll set the pace there and adjust it as I progress through the step in the same way.

The key learning point here is that you can’t try to overfit the algorithm. You need to give your heart rate a chance to adjust and stabilize.  Don’t change your pace in anything smaller than 2 minute intervals and don’t change it by more than 2 clicks at a time.  This will give your HR a chance to adjust and you won’t over shoot.

Now as you get into that last long zone 4 effort things are going to get a bit uncomfortable.  You are going to start to feel the cumulative fatigue of the miles.  Depending on where you are in your fitness this will either manifest in your legs or your engine.

You will be forced to get inside yourself and find a form that allows you to stay on pace and in zone.  This is where you have to relax into the effort and sort of ‘ride the effort’.  You’ll need to really fight to hold good form and stay in the moment.  You’ll probably be streaming sweat at this point too.  You’ll be quite a spectacle for the other gym patrons.  Smile.  This is the good stuff.  This is as close to race experience training as you can get.

If your legs start to go focus on effort and turnover.  Focus on just turning the legs over.  You may have to shorten your stride and bring down the pace.

Initially you manage this step as you did the previous ones.  Estimate a zone 4 pace and ease into it, adjusting as necessary to stay in mid-zone 4.

Somewhere in this step you are going to start to fail a bit.  That’s the point of the workout.  Typically, this will happen quickly.  You’ll be bashing along, trying to survive and your HR will start to climb quickly.  This is a cumulative fatigue inflection point.

Keep an eye on your HR and at some point, you’ll see it climb up over 4.5.  At that point start backing off the pace.  You’ll probably want to back off two clicks at a time.  When you reach this cumulative fatigue point things can snowball and you need to stay on top of it to keep the workout from crashing out.

You may find you have to bring the pace way down, like 30 seconds and mile or more, to find that mid-zone 4 heart rate again.  Again leave it there and let it readjust for a couple minutes.  You may find a point where it overcorrects back down into zone 3.  Then you can slowly, one click at a time, start bringing the pace back up to find a new set point for zone 4.

This cumulative fatigue inflection point may happen multiple times during this long pace step.  That’s ok.  It’s part of the practice.  How to manage that cumulative fatigue and keep racing, or at least running, and stay in the race.

I’ll be honest with you, 4 or 5 miles of this is a hard slog.  You have to be mentally tough to get through it.  You’ll find yourself clock watching.  Mentally willing those red LED numbers to move faster.  Eventually you can manage it through to the last mile and with the end in sight it will become mentally easier.  You might even let yourself off the leash for the last ½ or ¼ mile and see what you can push to.

Then you recover for a mile at whatever pace feels right and bask in the glow of knowing you have stared the race-pace monster in the eye and persevered. You can put that in your pocket and bring it with you to your target race.

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