Coach Tip Tuesday: Pace & Effort are NOT the Same Thing

Posted On:
Tuesday, March 19, 2024
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Pace and effort.  Out of all of the things that I talk about with athletes, these two concepts and the interplay between them is what sparks the most confusion for athletes.  What’s interesting (and deceptive!) about it is that athletes often don’t even realize that they are confused about or that they misunderstand the concepts of effort and pace.

What is Pace?

If you look it up, the word “pace” has a surprising number of definitions.  As the word relates to endurance sports, the most applicable definition of Pace is “the speed or rate at which something happens.”  In other words, pace is a measure of the speed or velocity at which you do your sport.  In swimming, it is expressed as minutes per 100 meters or minutes per 100 yards.  In cycling, it is expressed as miles per hour or kilometers per hour.  In running, it is expressed as minutes per mile or minutes per kilometer.

What is Effort?

Like “pace”, the word “effort” also has several definitions.  The most applicable definitions for Effort when it comes to endurance sports are “a serious attempt” and “something produced by exertion or trying.”  The most common way to express effort in endurance sports is Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).  Rating of Perceived Exertion is a way of measuring and communicating the intensity level of physical activity.  It is a subjective measure that is gauged on a rating scale, most commonly on a rating scale from 1 to 10.

How Pace and Effort Get Confused

The most clear indication that an athlete is confused about pace and effort is when they use these terms interchangeably.  I see this all the time when I’m working with the athletes on Performance Coaching in their Post-Workout Notes.  As an example, let’s consider a workout that is planned on entirely RPE.  In a workout like this, the entirety of the workout - the Warm-Up, the Main Sets, and the Cool-Down - are planned based on different levels/numbers of RPE.  In their Post-Workout Notes for such a workout, an athlete will often comment on how they managed their “pace,” with no reference to effort at all.  They will also often use words such as “slower” or “faster” to describe parts of the workout, which are adverbs that describe changes in speed or velocity.  In other words, these words describe changes in pace.

Since the workout was planned on effort, the athlete should have been focusing on managing their effort and their subjective exertion as they were doing the workout.  By noting that they managed their pace (versus managing their effort) and/or by using words such as “slower” or “faster”, the athlete indicates that they were focusing on and using a metric (pace) that was not part of the planned workout; they were focusing on the speed at which they were completing the workout.  If they had been focusing on their effort, they would have stated that, or they would have used adverbs such as “easier” or “harder”, which are words that describe changes in effort levels.

Sure, maybe this seems in the weeds or even overly nitpicky.  But words matter because different words do - like it or not - mean different things.  Which words we say and write indicate what we are truly doing or feeling.  When I question an athlete about feedback that includes language that contradicts how a workout was planned, it’s not uncommon for athletes to tell me that they didn’t mean what they said.  It’s also not unusual for athletes to tell me  that they didn’t even consciously realize that they were thinking about or talking about something different (pace) than what was planned (effort).

That - that right there - proves my point.  Athletes are not even aware that they are confused about this distinction between effort and pace.  That is what is both deceptive and concerning about this.  The first step to wisdom and proficiency is self-awareness.  If you are not aware that you are misunderstanding key concepts that pertain to your training and racing, you will be unable to master those concepts and thus - by extension - you will not be able to reach your potential and see fully realized gains in your sport or goals.

Why Athletes Shy Away from Effort

In many ways, it’s understandable that athletes (consciously or unconsciously) shy away from dialing in on their effort and instead focus on a more tangible concept such as pace.  Pace is something objective and concrete; it is something that can be clearly seen and stated.  An athlete can check out a bit and transfer over the thinking to a device that spits out this metric to them; it honestly doesn’t require much work on the athlete’s part to think about pace as a metric since it is measured and provided by an external device.  That external device does all of the calculations and work to generate a metric such as pace.

Effort cannot be measured by a device because it is subjective, and being subjective means it’s nebulous and intangible.  In this world we live in - where literally anything and everything can be tracked and quantified by a physical device - something nebulous and intangible is often difficult for people to understand, much less embrace.  Dialing in on one’s effort is the ultimate engagement with and development of one’s self-awareness in sport.  Thus, it requires a much more substantial investment of mental energy to use RPE (especially when one is first learning how to gauge their own effort) than it does for an athlete to use metrics generated by external devices.

This being said: Just because we have grown used to and pretty dependent on data and quantifiable metrics does not mean that they are inherently superior to everything and anything else.  Some of the most meaningful measures of things are challenging - if not completely impossible - to measure tangibly.  In the world of endurance sports, one of these meaningful measures of athletic performance that cannot be measured tangibly is an athlete’s effort or Rating of Perceived Exertion.

In my experience, the majority of age-group athletes tend to prefer objective metrics such as pace over subjective concepts such as effort because of the time and energy investment that is required on their part in order to truly understand effort.  Elite and professional athletes, on the other hand, do understand the value of effort and their understanding of this is what distinguishes them from non-elite and non-professional athletes.  While professional athletes may be wearing devices made by companies such as Garmin or Polar, they are often doing so because they are sponsored by those brands (and therefore are contractually obligated to be seen wearing their sponsor's products).  While professional athletes may be wearing devices, they may not always be using devices the way you think they are.  

In the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Sara Hall took her watch and flung it into the crowd at Mile 17.  Why?  She didn’t have any use for the data.  Her splits didn’t matter.  In fact, the data about her splits might very well have been getting in her way and distracting her from what did matter.  From Mile 17 until she crossed the finish line, she raced entirely on effort.  She trusted her ability to manage her effort, which was a skill earned from years of experience and commitment to being self-aware.  She ultimately finished 5th in the race.  While she didn’t make the Olympic Team, she had the best finish of her career in an Olympic Trials (and she’s run in a whopping eight Olympic Trials!).  


How Pace and Effort Interact with Each Other

Pace and effort, while different, are related to each other.  To expand upon a quote from cycling coach Charles Howe, “[Pace] calibrates perceived exertion, and perceived exertion modulates [pace].”  This means that doing something at a given pace is going to feel like a certain amount of effort.  Furthermore, doing something at a given effort is going to translate to being completed at a certain pace.  

What’s tricky is that since it is objective, a given pace is always going to be a given pace.  15 mph is always 15 mph.  9:00 per mile is always 9:00 per mile.  But on one day, 15 mph might feel easy, around an RPE 4.  On a different day or in different conditions or circumstances, 15 mph may feel very challenging indeed, say around an RPE 8.  Even within the same interval or workout, how you feel about the same pace can change.  For instance, you may start a half marathon at 9:00 per mile and think that it feels like RPE 4.  By Mile 12, that same 9:00 per mile pace may feel like RPE 7 or RPE 8.

Effort, as we have discussed, is subjective.  How you feel changes daily and is impacted by your stress levels, sleep, hydration levels, and more.  This means that running at RPE 4 may translate to 10:00 per mile pace one day and 9:15 per mile on a different day.  Because so many things influence it, the same RPE can result in different paces even within the same workout or interval.  For instance, using the same example as before, let’s say you start a half marathon at RPE 4, which translates to a 9:00 per mile pace in the first couple of miles.  As you move through the race, you maintain that same effort level RPE 4.  But due to course conditions, weather, your fitness level, and the fatigue that is accumulating in your body, that same RPE 4 effort level translates to 10:00 per mile in Mile 12.  Even though the paces were different, how you feel (RPE 4) is the same.

One of the more advanced and challenging concepts for athletes to understand is that what a given effort level translates to speed or pace-wise for a shorter time interval (such as three minutes) will not translate to the same speed or pace for a longer time interval (such as two hours).  For instance, a three-minute interval completed at RPE 8 will translate to a faster speed or pace than two hours completed at RPE 8 would.  But shorter intervals don’t automatically call for higher effort levels; there is value in learning to execute and manage any effort level for both short and longer intervals.

This concept is particularly challenging for athletes who do long-course events such as half marathons, marathons, IRONMAN 70.3s, or IRONMANs.  The longer the race, the more critical pacing becomes to an athlete’s success.  Managing pace and effort for longer events is difficult for athletes to master because perceived exertion at the correct pace for events that are this long is likely going to feel a lot lower than the athlete knows that they can do, especially in the early stages of the event.

How to Learn to Use Effort and Rating of Perceived Exertion

The best way to learn effort - to truly learn it - is through calibration.  Calibrate means “to determine, rectify, or mark the graduations of.”  In this process of learning effort, we are seeking to calibrate ourselves; we are seeking to learn to mark the graduations of (aka distinguish) the different RPE levels within our own selves.  This process of self-calibration often takes a long time, but the results are worth it.  One way to “jump start” this process is to do a workout focusing solely on different effort levels.

To do this, it is best if no devices are used at all for the workout.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  No bike computer.  No specifically designed fitness device.  No smart watch.  No watch at all, smart or dumb.  No phone.  Nothing that can measure anything tangibly at all in any way, shape, or form.

Once you’ve ditched your devices, begin the workout.  Start off at a very easy effort - RPE 1.  Remain here for a bit and then increase your effort one “step” - one number on the RPE scale - to RPE 2.  Stay here for a bit and increase your effort by one step to RPE 3.  Continue this process until you have made it all the way up to RPE 10.  Then, do the same process in reverse, coming down the steps.

While you’re doing this, really pay attention to the physical sensations  and responses you have to the different levels of RPE.  Note how these responses and sensations differ from each other at different levels.  Dialing in on this is how you will start to be able to internalize how the different levels feel and how to distinguish different levels from each other, such as being able to differentiate RPE 3 from RPE 4 and RPE 6 from RPE 8.

Doing this workout a few times is really helpful.  Once you’ve done it a few times, increase the duration of the intervals and pay attention to the sensations you feel as you increase the duration that you are holding a particular effort level for.  If you are a multisport athlete, you should do this workout in each of the disciplines of your sport (such as swimming, biking, and running).  (I’ve included example workouts for all three disciplines here.)  Even beyond your initial executions of this type of workout, you should include iterations of it in your training at least every few months so you can check-in with yourself, recalibrate as necessary, and thus ensure that you are staying in touch with what each effort level feels like to you.

After you’ve done this No-Devices-Effort-Only workout a few times, you can start to add devices back into your workouts.  But be wary of the temptation to look at (and use!) tangible metrics when you are mid-workout.  When athletes are learning effort, I find that advising them to have overall duration as the only data field accessible and viewable on their device is very useful, as it takes away their ability to judge and/or execute the workout on anything other than effort while they are doing the workout.  After the workout, they can look at any recorded metrics as part of post-workout analysis.  Looking at any metrics (such as pace) mid-workout is often distracting for athletes and diminishes their ability to execute a workout on effort until they are more experienced and proficient in using effort as the basis of their workout.

Deciding Whether to Use Pace or Effort

There are times when it is appropriate to plan workouts on pace, and there are other times when it is appropriate to plan workouts based on effort.  If an athlete has a performance-based (time-based) goal, then planning workouts based on pace is necessary to help ensure that they will be able to hold and maintain the paces required as well as the mental stress that time imposes to hit that goal.  In other situations, pace-based workouts can be useful to help push an athlete a bit beyond their comfort zone and to help them see gains.  Conversely, pace-based workouts can be effectively leveraged to ensure that an athlete is not overreaching or going too hard in a given workout.

All of this being said, effort is the most important tool that an athlete can develop in their Athlete’s Toolbox since it is subjective; because it’s subjective, it is independent of any external devices, which means that it cannot just up and fail on you.  For this reason, even if you are including pace-based workouts in your training,  it is important to also include effort-based workouts alongside those pace-based workouts.  The only way effort can fail you is if you refuse to develop this skill.  Effort can be used in any workout and in any situation; it is universally applicable and endlessly reliable in this way.

Technology Will (Not Might) Fail

Technology and external devices will always have a possibility of failing.  If you stay in endurance sports long enough, your technology and external devices will fail on you at some point.  At the very least, they will glitch on you and not work as designed or intended.  (This is a certainty; it’s not a hypothetical.)  Being too dependent on any one skill or any one thing is dangerous, especially when it relies on an external factor such as a device.  So when (not if) your technology fails, you need to have different tools in your Athlete’s Toolbox that you’re comfortable with and proficient in that you can switch to.  I’ll share a case study that illustrates exactly why this is so important:

Several years ago, an athlete who was training for an IRONMAN with the goal of qualifying for the IRONMAN World Championship hired me to coach him.  For the purposes of this example, we will call him Sandy (that’s not his real name).  As part of the interview process, Sandy asked me how I plan workouts and asked if I plan workouts on heart rate.  I answered his question honestly; I said that I plan workouts using a variety of things, to include heart rate, power, pace, and Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).  

Sandy hired me, and in response to me planning some workouts on RPE, said that he wanted me to plan all of his workouts on heart rate because he wasn’t “very good at RPE”.  I pushed back on this, and said that planning all workouts on heart rate wasn’t in his best interests, because his heart rate monitor could fail.  I said that we could plan some workouts on heart rate, but that I would also recommend planning some workouts on RPE so he could learn a different skill/tool and have a backup for when his heart rate monitor would fail (because it would happen, it wasn’t an if).  I said I would not write all of his workouts on heart rate only because my doing so would harm more than it would help him in the long-term.

Sandy said that he had misunderstood me when I said that I write workouts on a bunch of different things; he had interpreted my answer to mean that I would write workouts exclusively on a variety of different things.  Sandy felt so strongly about training exclusively by heart rate that he fired me.  His race weekend came, and he prepared to board the international flight to the race destination.  The day he was boarding the plane, his heart rate monitor died and wouldn’t function at all.  Sandy was therefore getting on an international flight to a faraway land without any hope of being able to get a replacement heart rate monitor in time for his race.  

To his credit, even though I wasn’t coaching him anymore, Sandy did reach out to me and let me know about what had happened.  He said he knew that I had tried to warn him about this exact situation, and now he was facing his A-Race of the season without any other tools to fall back on.  Only then - when it mattered most and when he couldn’t do anything about it - did he realize how important having another tool (such as effort) to switch to is and how having multiple tools in his Athlete's Toolbox is what would have set him up for the best chance of success.

The Bottom Line

Whether they realize it or not, pace and effort are often confused by athletes.  But pace and effort, though related, are not the same thing.  Learning to distinguish between the two is incredibly important.  It’s even more important that athletes learn RPE and how to discern between different effort levels, as this ability will be the most valuable and meaningful one you develop as an athlete.  Effort can be used both as the basis of workouts and racing and as a backup tool to other skills, concepts, and techniques.  Learning to develop this tool and leverage it is what will help elevate all of your workouts and races.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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