Steady-state runs are high-end aerobic runs that are in proximity to your marathon pace. They are potent, time-efficient, and easier to recover from than threshold runs. And yet, steady-state runs are often overlooked by runners.
“Steady-state runs are high-end aerobic workouts.”
If you deploy steady-state runs strategically in your training plan, you develop the necessary stamina to stay on pace for longer in crucial training sessions.
Defining Steady-State Runs
The definition of steady-state varies among different coaches. But most agree on steady-state as being faster than easy runs and slower than half-marathon pace. I don’t use the term steady-state in my training plans as it covers a wide range of intensities. Instead, I use the following 3 finer distinctions:
Moderate pace: 10 – 20 seconds slower per mile than your marathon pace.
Marathon pace: Current estimated marathon race pace (not target marathon pace).
30K – HM pace: 10 – 20 seconds faster per mile than your marathon pace.
Moderate runs are at the upper end of the easy run spectrum. If you use a heart rate monitor, then it would be 10 – 15 bpm above your typical easy run pace. Moderate runs recruit more slow-twitch muscle fibers simultaneously than easy runs. If you are time-poor on certain days, slightly shorter runs at this pace are a good alternative to easy runs.
Should you still be in your 20s, you can make this your default pace on all easy days. This also applies to intermediate and advanced runners who run only 4 times per week. At that low training frequency, you should run your midweek easy run and weekend long run at this moderate pace. Everybody else should use this pace only once or twice a week.
Moreover, moderate runs are useful for transitioning from an easy day in the base phase to a faster workout day in the fundamental period. A moderate pace also serves well as an add-on to long runs before fast finishes at marathon or HM pace are applied.
Your current marathon pace is well-defined. You can calculate the equivalent from a race result of any other distance. In terms of your heart rate, it will be around 10 – 15 bpm below your lactate threshold intensity.
Marathon pace is simply one of the best workouts to train your slow-twitch muscle fibers, regardless of your race distance. Whereas an easy run only recruits 40 – 60 percent of your endurance fibers simultaneously, marathon pace recruits all of them. And yet only a small percentage of intermediate-twitch fibers are being called into action. That keeps your more explosive muscles fresh for faster workouts. Marathon pace also doesn’t elevate blood lactate levels to a significant degree.
Nonetheless, runs at marathon pace should be limited to 1 workout per week. The segment duration at marathon pace is typically 20 to 40 minutes. If marathon pace is tagged to the end of long runs, the duration is generally shorter. But exceptions for longer segments apply for highly race-specific workouts in preparation for a marathon.
30K – HM Pace
30K to half-marathon pace marks most amateur runners’ aerobic threshold (LT1). This happens at 95% of the anaerobic threshold (LT2). Therefore your heart rate will be just 5 – 10 beats under your LT2, or lactate threshold.
While working your slow-twitch fibers to the maximum, this tempo pace extends the aerobic endurance adaptions to a significant proportion of intermediate-twitch muscle fibers too. Thus, both muscle fiber types benefit from capillarization, increased mitochondrial volume, and more aerobic enzymes. Not to mention increases in blood plasma volume, including RBC count.
Tempo workouts at 30K pace or HM pace typically precede the more intense lactate threshold training. Here, too, segments ranging from 20 to 40 minutes are appropriate, with 1 tempo workout per week as a logical progression from the less intense marathon pace in the previous weeks. Attach some easy running to the beginning and end of a tempo run to reach your mileage goals.
Steady-State Workout Variations
Whichever tempo pace you choose in a particular workout, you can combine them with an easy pace in myriad combinations.
The classic approach is a lengthy segment at steady-state pace that is sandwiched between easy pace. That’s typically your warm-up and cool-down. If the easy portion of the run is longer than 3 miles, then attach the lion’s share of the easy pace to the beginning of the workout. A cool-down at this intensity is optional.
Another method is alternations. Here the intensity changes between your chosen tempo pace and easy pace every 1 or 2 miles. Hence an 8 mile run could be 1E-2T-2E-2T-1E. But feel free to be creative with combinations. Unlike workouts in the faster intensity spectrum, the interval segments are not tied to specific recovery intervals.
On the more demanding end are progression runs that use several different intensities. You begin with an easy pace and then up the intensity for every segment that follows. This type of workout also lends itself as a variation to your weekly long run. As always, make sure the workout in question fits the overall structure of your training plan.