Ask The Experts: How Fast Is “Hard”?

Q.

Hi Matt,

I read your book that you wrote with Brad Hudson (Run Faster: How to Be Your Own Best Coach) and I was just wondering if you could explain in pacing terms what “moderate” and “hard” are at the end of progression runs. It says “a mild aerobic strain” for the moderate but I was wondering if you could give me something a little more concrete, like pace or HR percentage. I am a female, age 29, my 5K PR is 18:03 (got today at a Turkey Trot!) and my max HR is 197 (or at least that’s what my watch read the last 0.1 mile of the 5K today.) Thanks so much.

Meghan K.

A.

Meghan,

First of all, congratulations on your new PR. 18:03! That’s fast. You must have gone home with some hardware.

Before I answer your question, let me bring those reading this who have not read Brad’s book up to speed. Brad is a big proponent of progression runs, which are simply steady, easy runs with a faster finish. The reason he likes them is that they are a good way to add a little extra high-intensity running to the week without putting a lot of extra stress on the body.

The classic distance runner’s weekly training schedule includes two bona fide high-intensity workouts—usually some sort of tempo or threshold run, say on Tuesday, and some sort of interval workout, say on Friday. Most runners cannot handle three high-intensity workouts per week—at least not consistently. But most runners can handle a little more high-intensity running within a single week than two full-blown high-intensity workouts provide. That’s where progression runs come in. In the classic training week just described, Wednesday’s run would probably be an easy recovery run. But if you were to tack on a 10-minute fast progression at the end of that run, you’d get a little extra high-intensity training stimulus without overtaxing your body. Ten minutes doesn’t sound like much, but done week after week, the benefits accumulate.

As for how fast to run your progressions, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, Meghan, and assume you read this paragraph in Brad’s book but did not find it completely satisfactory:

I have an idiosyncratic way of prescribing intensity for progression runs that I should explain. For most hard workouts, I use race-pace targets. For example, a threshold run might consist of 2 x 15 minutes at half-marathon pace with a 5-minute active recovery between intervals. But with progressions I use subjective intensity guidelines: namely, “moderate” and “hard.” That’s because I believe it’s important that progressions be run by feel, since their purpose is to stimulate aerobic development without exhausting the runner. It doesn’t matter what pace you run in your progressions relative to your various race pace levels. Just run at whatever pace feels “moderate” to you in workouts that call for a moderate progression, and run at whatever pace feels “hard” (yet manageable) to you in workouts that call for a hard progression.

Now, Brad meant what he wrote here. Replacing the perceived effort guidelines he uses in progression runs with specific pace or heart rate guidelines would defeat part of their purpose. There’s a time and a place to let numbers guide you, and progression runs aren’t it. Progression runs are meant to be a little less formal and serious than the threshold runs and interval runs that are governed by numbers.

That said, the actual paces that correspond to feelings of “moderate” and “hard” are fairly predictable. I can tell you from my experience that I typically run my moderate progressions at roughly my marathon pace (6:20-6:00/mile) and my hard progressions at my half-marathon pace (5:50-5:35/mile). As an 18:03 5K runner, the corresponding paces for you would be roughly 6:50-6:40/mile and 6:30-6:20/mile. For the less advanced runner whose marathon pace is not much different from his or her easy run pace, “moderate” intensity is more likely to correspond to half-marathon pace and “hard” intensity to 10K pace or even a little faster.

Hope that helps. For more of my own guidelines for progressions runs, click here.

Matt

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Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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