Pace calculators: is too much of a good thing a bad thing?

I’ll admit up front: I don’t spend a whole lot of time using pace calculators. I may not be the most experienced runner out there, but I’ve gone through enough training cycles and run enough races to know that my performance isn’t really something that can be predicted with mathematical precision. Running paces, for those of you who are statistically minded, are pretty much Exhibit A for random variables: one’s paces will oscillate around some [unknown] average with some [unknown] amount of variability, and these two amounts can change depending on all sorts of factors, including but not limited to:

  • fitness level (j/k lol this has nothing to do with your pace, pshhh)
  • temperature
  • time of day
  • amount of sleep you’ve had
  • work stress
  • what you ate 10 minutes ago
  • what you ate 10 hours ago
  • how cuddly your significant other is in the mornings
  • whether or not you just had argument with someone on the internet
  • whether or not a butterfly in Brazil flapped its wings

The punchline here is, your pace is hard to nail down exactly. You can certainly get a good ballpark figure, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve crashed and burned one day, only to go out again less than 24 hours later and have the run of my life. Or vice versa.

But there are plenty of websites that attempt this feat nonetheless, with varying degrees of success. One of my favorites is McMillan Running.

Who wears polo shirts out in the mountainous taiga?
Who wears polo shirts out in the mountainous taiga?

One of the reasons I love it is because of how ridiculously optimistic it is. If you’re on my blog, you probably see the text box to the right near the top that has my PRs. Go ahead and enter my 5K PR into McMillan, and see what it spits out in terms of a marathon finishing time (punch in anything you want for “goal race info”).

The resulting “current times” make my head spin.

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The 10K is within reach. The half-marathon is my A+++ goal for Air Force 2014, and the marathon…Dreamland. Seriously: a full hour faster than my current marathon time. Ha. Ha ha. Ha.

But if you keep looking at it for a few more seconds, something starts happening. You may not even be consciously aware of it. But if you’ve set enough PRs and care enough about improving your time, you’ll realize: you’re plotting how to make the consciously-dismissed Utopia of Running into cold, hard reality.

And I’m here to say: don’t deny it! We all do it. In fact, I’d suggest you err closer to the other end of the spectrum: embracing it (with some caveats, which I’ll get to). For instance, on a whim, I entered my recent Pittsburgh half PR as my current time, and added the Boston Marathon qualifying time for my age group.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 12.36.18 PM

To say that it’s a reach would be an understatement. My 1-mile time would have to improve by a full 30 seconds; my 5K time is getting close, but that pace is (as of right now) much closer to my current 1-mile time than my goal 1-mile time. The 10K and especially the half marathon are also light years away from being a reality.

BUT. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I have to admit: seeing these numbers got me thinking about how to make them a reality for a solid few minutes before reality seeped in and, at least temporarily, put a stop to the scheming.

And that’s the caveat with these things: the optimism and inspiration are great, but reality can be a cruel mistress. I think that was probably my biggest mental failing in the last year: I assumed a linear trend of improvement as a function of time and effort. Of course, if you’d asked me directly if I thought training at a particular pace made that pace a reality, I’d have replied with some horrible mish-mash of pie-in-the-sky Kantian percepts tempered by nonsensical anecdotal realities that ultimately wouldn’t answer the question in any satisfiable way. But some part of me believed that if I (or some pace calculator) said my easy pace was 8:30 min/mi, it would therefore happen.

News flash: it didn’t happen. In fact, I’ve gained more speed over the last 6 months from throwing pace expectations entirely out the window than I did from stridently insisting on certain speed / tempo / recovery paces.

This is not to argue that pace calculators are useless; they aren’t. McMillan has some pretty sweet suggestions for speed / tempo / recovery paces based on your current race times. Just be sure to keep in mind that these paces can vary between miles, to say nothing of days or weeks or months. Use these paces as guidelines with huge error bars, rather than Truth Incarnate. Use them as motivation to set and attain new goals, while remaining fully cognizant of the inherent up/down nature of running.

And at least in part, use them as a source of amusement and a reminder that nothing in the real world conforms to exact mathematical precision.

Like body mass index.