How Running Slowly Makes You a Better Runner

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How Running Slowly Makes You a Better Runner

For many of us, running is all about how fast we can go — what our next personal best is going to be, and how we’re going to get there. To run fast, you have to train fast, right? Well…  it’s complicated.

A 2015 American College of Cardiology study shows that individuals get the benefits of running no matter the time, distance, frequency or speed. The study concluded that “leisure-time running, even at levels well below the current minimum guidelines for physical activity, is associated with reduced risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease.” So, not only do you still get the health benefits no matter how much or how fast you run, most coaches and training plans actually encourage you to include slow runs.

DEFINING SLOW

First, let’s clarify what “slow” means. My slow is going to be different than your slow, which is going to be different than an elite runner’s slow. A good rule of thumb is to run at a conversational pace, which means you could comfortably talk to a partner while you run.

Long, slow runs help your body build endurance for distance, teach your body how to use glycogen and fat as fuel, strengthen your muscles and tendons and prepare your body (and mind) for the stress of running a long distance.

Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, CEO and run coach at iRunTons, wholeheartedly believes in the benefits of slow running. “Proper training is all about balance, balancing hard efforts with recovery efforts,” she explains. “The term slow can imply that it is ‘less than’ a fast run. I prefer the term ‘recovery’ to describe these runs, because it is this very important element that they provide. These runs allow you to condition your aerobic system, focus on gait patterns and enjoy the scenery.”

Slow running isn’t just for the recreational runner or someone who is looking to lose weight. “I am a firm believer in aerobic activity of all kinds,” says Jacob Puzey, elite runner and coach. “The challenge in today’s society is that people want instant results with the least amount of work. The greatest fitness and performance gains are made by regularly training at an ‘easy’ or relatively ‘slow’ effort over a prolonged period. This principle has been replicated and proven time and time again by the world’s greatest endurance athletes.”

THE 80/20 PRINCIPLE

Based in Norway at the time, American exercise scientist Stephen Seiler found that the best cyclists, Nordic skiers, rowers, runners, swimmers and triathletes in the world completed about 80% of their training at a lower intensity. His research found that “combining large volumes of low-intensity training with careful use of high-intensity interval training throughout the annual training cycle is the best-practice model for development of endurance performance.”


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Not only does going slow allow you to run more with less injury risk, you’ll feel better if you build up your aerobic system. Gallagher-Mohler has seen that “many distance runners run too hard too often and don’t spend enough time training the aerobic system. This causes them to have a more developed anaerobic system, which isn’t a problem if you’re racing a mile, but it is limiting if your race distance requires true endurance. Though it can take time, and patience, having my distance athletes incorporate the right balance of recovery runs into their training plan not only helps them to race faster, but they feel better doing it.”

Puzey has seen the same results with his clients. “When athletes embrace running slower they are less prone to injury and fatigue,” he says. “This enables them to train more consistently, which, in turn, helps them to increase their fitness. As they improve, their ‘slow’ pace isn’t as slow and they become more efficient runners. They recover better between hard runs which then enables them to push harder when it is time to push.”  

It’s not easy to convert hardcore runners into slow-running enthusiasts. For Gallagher-Mohler, it’s all about trust. “I am up front with my clients that the process of switching physiological gears doesn’t usually takes weeks, but rather months,” she says. “This can be really challenging on the mind as it can feel like you’re going backwards at first. But, in time, there is a shift that happens where everything clicks.”

To drive the point home,  Puzey gives clients a look at his training via apps like MapMyRun. “I have seen the value in letting my athletes see how slowly I train most of the time,” he says. “When they see that, they generally buy in and make a more concerted effort to run slow most of the time so that they can run fast the other times.”

Studies show that slow running works. The anecdotal evidence from coaches backs up the science. . Though it’s important to include speed runs in your routine, too, slow it down the next time you head out for a few miles. Your PR will thank you.


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