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Pacing yourself

Contributor: Derek Fey, XC Head Coach, College of St. Mary

Nerd note: We want to expand the content we provide to our followers, and Coach Fey has offered to write periodic articles about training and racing. We're not trying to take the place of your coach or his/her training plans, but we're impressed with Coach Fey's running wisdom and writing skills. This article reminds me of the most important lesson that Nerd Junior said he learned during his freshman year at UNL: "easy days should be really easy."

Coach Fey is also part of the College of St. Mary's staff that is hosting pre-season indoor meets beginning this week; you can find more details at If you'd like to contribute an article(s), shoot us an e-mail at


Sometimes logic is a dangerous weapon in distance running.

It makes logical sense that if a distance runner wants to improve their times, they have to run faster in all phases of their training. To run a personal best in the 1,600 meters, you better run your aerobic runs (mileage days) faster as well as your quality workouts. It makes logical sense.

But that’s a fallacy.

Christy Nielsen, originally from Treynor, Iowa, has mastered the art of training at a pedestrian pace and churning out numerous notable performances. Nielsen is a three-time US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier as well as a winner of multiple Lincoln Marathons. She is one of the most accomplished distance runners in Nebraska history. And her longevity of racing at a high level can be directly attributed to taking it easy when the training calls for it.

This meant running aerobic runs (mileage days) at 8:00-8:30 per mile.

Her 5k college PR: 17:45.

“At high school age you can get in shape so quickly – I would rather an athlete be a little ‘out of shape’ when the season starts than be injured and exhausted (by season’s end),” Nielsen said. “The number one thing people do wrong is run too fast [on aerobic days].”

For the high school runner, taking it easy during summer and winter training is imperative. Most of a runner’s positive physiological changes for a calendar year occur during those months of running simple base mileage. Mitochondria – the microscopic organelle that produces ATP (energy), thrive and multiply in aerobic conditions. The more mitochondria a runner possesses, the better. A major benefit of an increase in mitochondria is a runner can recover much quicker in between workouts.

There are several concerns if the pace is too fast during aerobic mileage months or on days in-between quality workouts. When runners “push the pace” too often during what are meant to be aerobic runs, the mitochondria shut down. Recovery becomes more difficult. There is also the threat that the athlete will peak too early. A runner can sharpen fairly rapidly with a workout schedule filled with intense workouts. The problem with that is when the time comes for the most important meet of the season (district, state, etc.) those runners struggle to run a season’s best.

So what is the appropriate pace for an aerobic run? I think that varies from runner-to-runner, but I recently read a suggestion that a distance runner should take their 1,600-meter PR, add three minutes to that time, and then run within 30 seconds faster or slower than that. I actually kind of like that approach. Certainly if you aren’t recovering between runs or you are feeling run down, the culprit could very well be your aerobic mileage pace is too fast.

I recall reading a blog post written by Prep Running Nerd last winter about the pre-season indoor track-field meets. A question was posed about the high-quality marks from January and February meets and whether or not the meets were detrimental to development in the spring. I was thinking the same thing as I watched Stella Miner nearly break 2:15 in the 800 meters and run a 5:11 in the 1,600 meters in January. As we found out, that was just a preview of what was to come for distance runners in 2022. But it’s a valid question. And being host to one of those pre-season indoor meet series at College of Saint Mary, it’s something I think about often. Personally, I think athletes would be wise to treat the pre-season indoor meets as just another workout. It’s a way to get back into racing mode after being away from it for a few months.

Having lofty goals and setting out to achieve them is admirable. This is why we train after all. But one of the most difficult things to learn as a distance runner is patience. It doesn’t happen in one season. Many times it doesn’t happen in a high school career. Improvement is continual and having a long-term approach to training and goal setting can be a difference maker. And it starts with slowing down, weirdly enough.

Good luck to you all as you prepare for another fantastic season of track and field!

* * * * * * * *

Originally written for and posted in December 2022 at by Derek Fey.

Like this coverage of Nebraska high school distance running? There's more of this at Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories, the Articles tab for long-form articles, the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we could find this year, and the Rankings tab for team and individual rankings. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at

Finally, if you think runners and jumpers are the best thing on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.

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