Should you train at where you are or where you want to be?

A conversation I was listening to today during our cool down got me thinking a little bit about a pretty fundamental difference in approaches to training. We’re all at some level of fitness and want to get fitter so when we’re doing pace work what effort should we be running at? I’ll use my specific goals and results as an example.

My recent results include a 2:53 marathon at Boston in April 2010 and a 2:51 in Portland in October 2009. I trained at 2:45 marathon equivalent paces for Boston and managed workouts successfully (for a flat course). Right now I’m training for CIM in December 2011 and have a goal of getting under 2:45.

My current fitness is in the 2:45 to 2:50 marathon range and I’ve opted to train at 2:45 marathon equivalent paces (6:18 MGP, 5:59 Tempo, 5:39 10k, 5:27 5k). 2:45 is my current goal so it makes sense to train at these paces since it’s reasonable given my current fitness. But let’s think about it as a longer term plan. Hypothetically let’s say I want to run a 2:40 marathon next year. Well should I train at 2:40 paces or 2:45 paces right now? Should I train at the pace that’s kind of where I am or where I want to be. Now if I said drop it to a 2:30 it’s obvious that’s really no where in the ballpark. A 5 minute drop in time is 10 seconds a mile for each of the paces so anything beyond that seems nuts to me.

One approach would be to try and run at 2:40 paces and see what I could do. The other is to run at 2:45 paces and when my fitness level is confirmed for a 2:45 drop down to 2:42 or 2:40 equivalent effort. If I tried to run the workout we had today (5 continuous miles alternating between 10k pace and marathon goal pace for each mile) here’s what the difference in paces would look like:

.         2:45 Paces     2:40 Paces
MGP     6:18                   6:07
HGP     5:59                   5:48
10k       5:39                  5:29
5k          5:27                 5:17

If i decided to go out at 5:29 pace today for the first mile at 10k pace instead of 5:40 I think I could  have run the mile succesfully. Looking at the numbers 5:29 pace is the 10k pace for a 2:40 marathon time and very close to my ideal 5k pace for a 2:45 marathon time. Now it’s a 5 mile workout so I doubt very much I would be able to get through 3 miles at my current 5k pace and 2 miles close to my current tempo pace successfully. If I did go out at a 5:29 my guess is I’d get through the first 10k set, the first MGP set, then maybe the 3rd 10k set and then come crashing down. I wouldn’t get the intended volume of work at the right effort levels of the workout and therefore the intended physiological adaptations. For me as an individual the faster paces would also put additional strain on my body which would make me more susceptible to injury. I choose to train at my where I am.

Of course this is my view on things, I’m relatively conservative with my training but I don’t think I’m alone on this approach. One of the people in the team has run a marathon faster than me in the past but took a break. So he’s currently looking at training at a 2:50 marathon pace for CIM 2010 and then 2:45 for Boston 2011. He’s choosing to train at 2:50 paces this season or where he is for CIM versus where he wants to be for Boston. He’s going to get fitter and as he gets fitter drop his target as he reaches milestones in his fitness assessment. It’s very difficult for most of us to have that patience or discipline but I think essential to long term success.

So my answer to the question is train at where you are with the following caveats:

  • Don’t sandbag
  • Where you are today is a range not a specific number
  • Keep that range reasonable
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