In Search of the Perfect Running Pace

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If you’re the type of obsessive runner who regularly reads running blogs, magazines, and books, you’ve probably encountered a lot of advice about the so-called “optimal pace” that a runner should strive for. There are all kinds of schools of thought with regard to this pace. Some say the best pace should make you out of breath while still feeling a little slow, while others say that you should continuously push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone in order to build endurance and strengthen your core. While these are certainly sound pieces of advice, they are not one-size-fits-all. And according to a recent study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, there is no set running pace that we should all adhere to.

Rather, according to the study, each individual runner has a pace at which his or her body works most efficiently, but there are no patterns that unite everyone. In other words, while some people work most efficiently at a medium-fast pace, others make the best use of their energy when pushing themselves. There is no so-called “rule.” Instead, it’s about finding that sweet spot that works for you.

The researchers came to these findings by observing several male and female runners at different speeds and measuring their carbon dioxide output and oxygen input. Men averaged 8.3 mph as the optimal speed, while women averaged 6.5 mph. However, within both categories, the individual ideal paces varied wildly.

According to the study authors, the only pace that doesn’t seem to work for anyone is that half-walk/half-jog pace that is often recommended for beginning runners. The authors say this gait is awkward and unnatural and makes poor use of the body’s resources.

One of the most interesting things about these findings is the fact that humans apparently find it much easier to find that sweet spot than animals do. While running on all fours is great for easy speed and quick bursts, humans are built for endurance. We may not be able to go fast, but we have a unique ability to find a perfect internal equilibrium when running. As any hardcore runner will tell you, once you get good at it you find a way to get into that groove where you almost feel relaxed.

As for why different people have different paces, this simply comes down to the fact that we all have different bodies. Whether due to evolution, life history, or simple variation, no two bodies are alike, so it’s natural for every individual to have his or her own ideal running pace.

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