How to pace yourself when running: top tips for finding a suitable speed

running pace
Discover how to pace yourself when running (Image credit: Getty)

As runners we all talk about pace, from easy to steady to hard. In everyone’s running training plan, there is a place for different paces, such as keeping a steady pace for a run of a longer duration or running a faster and harder pace for shorter reputations or intervals. 

A run might be done at one steady pace, or at a slower pace. Another run might include faster paced intervals as part of a steady paced run.

If you want to be able to run for longer, it is our "steady" pace that we need to get right. A "steady" pace will naturally become faster as we train more, but first we need to identify this pace. Here's how to pace yourself when running.

What is a steady running pace?

How do we define a steady running pace? This will be different for each runner but it’s generally described as a pace that you can settle into and hold from the start to the finish of a run. 

A steady pace – or a consistent running pace – is considered to be the best way to achieve a timed goal. It is a pace that feels comfortable and can be maintained for many miles of running. If you are still unsure, think about a pace that doesn't cause your heart rate to rise too high, allows you to breath fairly evenly and allows you to chat to someone else. 

To work out your current steady running pace, set out for a run route that you know you can maintain without feeling too taxed. Then look for 'pace' on your sports watch. The majority of the best GPS watches will show the pace per mile, or kilometer, as well as overall average pace for the run.

What about race pace?

If you have set a goal of a race or a challenge, you may well be keen to finish in a certain time. For example, a 10k in 45 minutes, a half marathon in 1 hour, 30 minutes or a marathon in 3 hours and 30 minutes. 

To achieve this target, you need to work out the race pace. There are plenty of online help guides to working out pace. So, for example, to run a 10k in 45 minutes you will be required to set an average pace of 4:30 min/km or 7:14 min/mile. 

The aim of your training is to build up to your steady pace over the weeks before the event to reach race pace. Basically, this is a faster steady pace. 

There are plenty of training plans online  and you should choose one that suits your current fitness levels and provides a realistic build up over several months. 

running pace

Use a sports watch to discover your pace (Image credit: Getty)

How to pace yourself when running: more tips

To better understand and achieve a steady running pace you can follow these tips.

Don’t start your run too fast

You may start with an easy paced warm up but then you will want to hold your own steady pace for the majority of the run.

If you set out too fast at the start, the chances are you will fade towards the end of the run. To run a faster time overall, you should be aiming to increase the speed of your average steady pace.

Listen to your body

You need to tune into how you are feeling when running. Listen to your breathing and think about how your heart and legs feel. 

To do this it is a good idea to switch off your music and run solo so you are not distracted by someone else’s running pace or chatting.

Perceived Exertion scale

A Perceived Exertion scale – or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) – is a way to measure the level of exertion a person feels during physical activity. It is usually rated from one to 10, where 10 is a full-on sprint.  You can think of the scale in percentage terms. So, running at eight out of 10, or 80%, will feel fairly hard, while 90% will be almost flat out. It is unlikely that you will be able to hold these paces for a longer duration.

Meanwhile, it will be possible to maintain a pace of 50% effort or 60% effort for longer. 

When you are running at these perceived exertions, take a look at your sports watch. Look at the pace and your heartrate and the more you assess this data, the greater your knowledge will be of your pace for different distances.

You can also think about how you are breathing or how your legs feel at different perceived exertions. 

This sort of analysis of your own running pace will be useful for understanding the pace that you should run at to achieve a time goal, or if you are keen to run further for longer. 

Try a treadmill run 

When you are running outside there will be variables and obstacles to take account of. The wind, heat from sunshine, rough trails and hills will all affect your pace.

A treadmill allows you to set a speed and elevation without any outside influences. 

You can also set a pace and see how long you can run for. By doing this, you’ll notice quickly if you’ve been striving for a pace that’s too fast or too slow overall.

running pace

Measure your pace by running a set distance and track the time (Image credit: Getty)

Think about cadence

There are different opinions on the ideal stride and cadence – and it will also be affected by your leg length and the terrain you are running on. It is easy to keep a consistent cadence when running on flat tarmac, compared to undulating trails.

One suggested ideal stride is a sweet spot between 170 to 190 footfalls per minute. It's said that 180 steps per minute is optimal foot turnover. Try to count your steps over a minute. Counting every left or every right footfall – then doubling this figure – will give you your own footfall measure per minute. 

The 180 cadence should stay the same regardless of your running pace.

Warm up to your steady pace

Best practice is to do a series of warm up exercises for runners, then jog at an easy pace for five minutes or more, before building to – and settling – into your steady pace. You shouldn’t expect your body to suddenly run at a steady pace.

Practice your race pace 

If you want to increase your steady pace, you’ll need to learn to run faster without feeling like it’s harder. To do this, you should include some sessions of faster and harder intervals of running. Think about a race pace you would like to achieve over a longer distance and run for a kilometer or a mile at this pace. Repeat this several times with rest in between.  

You could also do some faster paced repetitions in the middle of a long steady paced run. 

Let yourself off sometimes

There will be days or runs where you feel more sluggish than other times. It could be to do with training overload, poor nutrition, a bad night’s sleep, a hard day of work or simply not feeling in the zone. Women can be affected by where they are in the menstrual cycle.

On these occasions, simply run at a pace that feels comfortable. You will still gain benefits, such a mental health, from a run even if it’s not at a pace you might usually hope to achieve. 

A steady running pace is a very useful asset for all runners.

Fiona Russell
Outdoor writer

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.