Coach Tony Stocker’s Pace Based Running FAQ for the Team Z Group Triathlon Training Program

Team Z Pace Based Training Frequently Asked Questions – by Coach Tony Stocker


What is pace-based training?

Simply, it is using pre-defined running paces rather than pre-defined heart rate ranges to control exercise intensity during workouts.

How does it differ from heart rate training?

Other than what one uses to determine exercise intensity and how that determination is made, i.e. what type of testing is done, they are very similar in operation. If you are used to using heart rate to control your run training, setting alarms on a Garmin for instance, then it’s a relatively simple matter to change your alarms to be paces instead of heart rates. One advantage of pace based training is that even with a simple watch you would be able to determine your pace if you have a known distance, such as on a track or mile markers on a trail. Still a tool like a Garmin which can provide real-time, or nearly so, pace data is more advantageous since you don’t have to wait a mile, or even quarter of a mile, to find out that you’re going faster or slower than a workout calls for you to do. Instead of “I’m running Z2 so my heart rate should be between 140-150bpm” your workouts become “I’m running LRP so my pace should be between 09:30-09:50 min/mi.”

Which is better?

Both methodologies have advantages and disadvantages associated with them. There is no perfect way for every person to train. There is also no completely accurate methodology for determining appropriate exercise intensities, all methodologies rely to some extent on the large scale applicability of certain effects to apply to everyone. Both methodologies can get you where you want to go with your training.

Pro’s Con’s
Heart Rate Based
  • Can use same method on both bike and run
  • VO2max, basis of HR zones, used extensively in scientific research for many years
  • Bases exercise intensity primarily on cardio-pulmonary ability
  • Requires a heart rate monitor for real time use
  • Requires separate testing for accurate zones in bike and run
  • Accurate, lab quality testing of VO2max to determine zones can be expensive
  • Readings lag effort during short, intense efforts
  • HR can be greatly affected by non exercise related factors
Pace Based
  • Easily repeatable
  • Cost-efficient testing
  • Not affected by environmental factors
  • Bases exercise intensity primarily on muscular ability
  • Requires a GPS type device for real time use. Or a watch, known course mileage, and rapid math calculation skills
  • Not applicable for use on bike
  • Can’t adjust pace intensity on hills in real time, must rely on RPE or experience

Which one should I use/follow for my training?

This isn’t an either/or type of decision. There’s no reason that you can’t use both, either by doing certain workouts, such as track practices, using pace-based methodology and using heart rate during your long runs. It’s also possible to use them together during a run and use them to check each other, for example you might be doing your normal long run using heart rate, but you also check your pace and if your find that your HR is higher (or lower) than normal at that pace it might indicate something that you need to address, i.e. hydration, illness, etc., or it might just be an indication of environmental factors, i.e. heat, humidity.

What if I don’t have a GPS type watch?

If you’re able to identify a distance, then all you need is a normal watch. This is obviously more difficult on routes when you don’t have mile markers or something similar. But even if you only use pace during track workouts then a watch, and a little math, is all you need to use pace-based training for at least part of your training. If you’re already using a heart-rate monitor for your training, you might be in luck in that it might already have the capability to track your pace, it’s something worth checking in the manual for your particular device.

What do I do in order to use Team Z’s pace-based training?

Rather than developing separate pace-based training plans (something that might be considered in the future), we have simply taken the current heart-rate based plans and attempted to match appropriate pace zones with the workout’s intent both for the individual workout and for the training track as a whole. Then we have inserted the terminology into the block alongside the HR terminology, for example a workout might have originally been written:

Track: WU, 3 strides, 20′ Z3, 5′ Z2, 25′ Z4, WD

But now it will read:

Track: WU, 3 strides, 20′ Z3 or OP, 5′ Z2 or MP, 25′ Z4 or TP, WD

However before you can follow the pace based instructions you need to know what your paces are. In order to determine those you need to know what your VDOT is.

What is a VDOT?

In short, simple terms VDOT is an estimation of your fitness, similar to but not necessarily identical to an laboratory run VO2Max test, which uses the known relationship between VO2Max and the Velocity at VO2Max (vVO2max) to determine training paces and equivalent race performances. You determine your VDOT by running a race or conducting a test race. In general race performances are best because you are usually giving everything you have, it’s much harder mentally to do race intensity alone on a track in the dark, however races rarely happen to fall when you need them to do so in your plan and since terrain and environmental factors can be substantially different between races. We recommend, and use in the plan, the practice of conducting VDOT tests on a high school track whenever possible, more on this below.

We utilize VDOT to determine the training paces that you will use during your running workouts, this is similar to how you utilize the results of a VO2max test to determine the heart rate ranges which you will stay within during your training.

What VDOT is NOT!

Many people view VDOT as a race predictor tool, i.e. “I ran 5k in time X, so I can run a marathon in time Y”. First of all, what is shown by these equivalent races is what someone who is trained specifically for that distance would do if they had a similar level of fitness as you. Secondly, while we utilize the 5k distance in our plans because it’s likely the easiest to do on a repeated basis, both mentally and physically, you generally want to conduct a VDOT test closer in distance to an intended race to get a better idea of how you might do. For example, you might race a 10 miler or a half-marathon rather than a 5k to get a better feel, using VDOT, for what your marathon finish time might be on a similar course in similar conditions.

How do I determine my VDOT and training paces?

To conduct a test you want to find a flat 5k course, or use a high school track (12.5 laps around on the inside lane, lane 1, makes 5k.) You will want to use the SAME course each time you test. If you use a high school track, you should be able to use any high school track. If at all possible you should do your tests at the same time of day each time, and you should endeavor to prepare for them the same way each time, i.e. what you have for meals beforehand, the amount of water you drink, etc. In a perfect world (San Diego) the temperature and humidity at test time would be the same regardless of time of year. However testing in early April will be much different than early August around the Washington DC area. So it is better to test when the temperature is low and humidity is low, if this means you change the time you do the test then so be it.

The purpose of the test is to test your fitness and ability. We don’t want extraneous factors like heat, humidity, and hills to influence the results. Hence the reason that a flat course or track is preferred. Even though it’s very difficult mentally, you need to run these as a race. This should be your absolute, best effort possible on that day. As with a race, you need to make sure that you do not go out too fast when you start. This is very common, but it can also hose your test – which means you’ll have to retest another time. You want to finish the test spent, and unable to go any further. But you do not want to burn out midway and have to walk or slow down in order to complete it.

Pace/Speed Zones Terminology

Zone Code:      Zone Name                                          HR Equivalent (rough estimate)

LRP:                Long Run Pace                                                Z1-mid Z2

MP:                 Marathon Pace                                     high Z2-mid Z3

OP:                  tempO Pace                                         high Z3

TP:                   Threshold Pace                                                high Z4

IP1600:                        Interval Pace (for 1 mile intervals)       Z5a

IP800:              Interval Pace (for 800m intervals)       Z5a-Z5b

IP400:              Interval Pace (for 400m intervals)       Z5b

IP200:              Interval Pace (for 200m intervals)       Z5b-c

Now, you’ve completed your test but how do you determine your training paces? You use the handy-dandy calculator located at the following URL:

How to Use Online Calculator Instructions:

  1. Go to the web site above
  2. Select the appropriate “race Distance” from the drop down box; more than likely 5km if you’re doing the usual Team Z tests
  3. Using the boxes for HH:MM:SS, enter your time from your most recent test in the appropriate boxes
  4. Choose whether or not you would like to see equivalent race times (this is informational and not really necessary.) By default you will not.
  5. Click on “Submit”
  6. A new page will appear which has these characteristics
    1. Shows the calculated VDOT value, with single decimal point so that you can see slight changes over time. In parenthesis will be the time you entered and the test distance.
    2. A table containing the training paces for that VDOT value
    3. A table containing a brief description of what the pace codes and definitions are
    4. [Optionally] The Equivalent Race Performances for that VDOT value


5km      at         23:30   gives:

VDOT value of 41.2 (0:23:30 for 5k)

            LRP      09:47-10:12 min/mi

            MP       08:31-08:41min/mi

            OP       08:10-08:20 min/mi

            TP        07:56-08:01 min/mi

            IP160007:21 per 1600m (07:21 min/mi pace)

            IP800   03:40 per 800m (07:21 min/mi pace)

            IP400   01:44 per 400m (06:57 min/mi pace)

            IP200   00:52 per 200m (06:57 min/mi pace)