So how do you know if you’re getting better at running?  Races are a good way of judging your performance, however each course is a little different.  Or the race distances are different.  So while race times can get you in the ballpark, they won’t give you an exact answer.

You could use a normal run around your neighborhood, however the problem now becomes effort.  Some days you may just end up running harder than the last time you ran that route.  Are you better just because you were able to push yourself a little harder?  Again you’re getting into the right ballpark, but you don’t necessarily have the exact answer.

Enter the MAF test.  The objective is to run the same distance on the same course at the same heart rate.  The last item there is the key.  Perceived effort and pace can tell you about how hard you’re running, but your heart rate never lies.  If you run faster at a given heart rate, then that means you’re becoming a better runner.  Now there are lots of things that can influence your pace at a given HR (temperature, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.), but this is the best way in my opinion to tell whether you’re seeing any real running improvements.

This morning I headed over to my local high school track to crank out 5 miles at a heart rate of 142bpm.  My splits looked like this:

Time Pace HR
 Overall 50.5 10:06 141
Mile 1 Mile 2 Mile 3 Mile 4 Mile 5
Pace 10:20 10:13 09:55 09:52 09:37
HR 140 141 141 142 141

My overall time includes a little extra since my Garmin measured about 0.05 miles short of a full 20 laps.  I think this was mostly on my last 2 laps so those splits should be closer to 9:55 than what’s listed above.

I’ve now done over 20 of these tests since I started in mid-2014 and I’ve hit a plateau at a 10:00-10:05 pace.  I started out in the 10.5-11 minute range with quite a bit of variability, but have been very consistent over the last 6 months.  This included 3 straight runs that were off by only 2 seconds over the 5 miles – total!  Today’s run was 14 seconds slower than my last test 5 weeks ago, which I’m chalking up to being a little under the weather.  Overall, I’ve only lost about 30 seconds (6 seconds per mile) since the end of my last training cycle.  So offseason + 5 pounds extra weight + little sick = 1% performance degradation.  I don’t know how you would score that at home, but that’s a win in my book any day of the week.

How do you measure your fitness gains?

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