But the one area where I’m really good at going slow is running. Despite that, studies show that if I’m like most runners, I might not be training slow enough.
“Long slow distance runs” are called that for a reason. They’re supposed to be long and slow. The other day when I was out running with Morgan, she reminded me of what I already knew: that the majority of us do not take that seriously enough.
In the article “Are You Sabotaging Your Long Run by Running at the Wrong Pace,” Sarah Russell notes that a good training program is all about building a solid aerobic base. Even the elite Kenyan runners, known for their achievements at the marathon distance, “spend around 85% of their time running at an ‘easy’ or ‘recovery’ pace.”
Yet this is what most recreational runners get wrong. Running ‘easy’ doesn’t feel right (or hard enough), so they intuitively run at a ‘moderate’ pace, kidding themselves they’re running easy. Struggling to hold a conversation, a heavy sweat, and red face post run is a giveaway that you did not run ‘easy’!
What’s easy? It’s about 70% of your maximum heart rate. It may be “easy” but it’s not easy to do. Our bodies adapt and then we want to go faster.
It’s good to do some drills where we push ourselves — speed intervals, hills. It’s good to do shorter tempo runs. But the worst thing for training, long thought to be the most useless waste of time, is to train in the mid-zone where we’re pushing too hard to have a conversation but not as hard as we do when we’re doing speed work or climbing hills.
Regular aerobic training will train your body to utilize oxygen, preserve glycogen stores by using fat for fuel, and generally become more efficient.
However, I estimate that at least 75% of runners – of all abilities – run too fast too often, and end up in the ‘mid zone’; training neither the aerobic or anaerobic systems correctly.
Many coaches, myself included, recommend an overall balance of hard/easy training (whilst avoiding the moderate zone), a method now becoming known as ‘polarized training’. The avoidance of ‘moderate’ training is the key, and runners focus on ‘easy’ paced running for the majority of time, with a sprinkling of really hard work (where you really can’t chat!) mixed in for approx 20% of the weekly mileage.
Lazy Girl Running also advocates the slow run. How slow? Here’s her take on it:
Speed is relative, so while my ‘slow’ miles are around 10 mins/mile, to another runner this would be their goal 5k pace, but my 5k pace is probably a cool-down for faster athletes. As a rough guide though, I’d say that easy runs should be 1-2 mins slower per mile than marathon pace. For those targeting shorter races it’s a couple of minutes pre mile slower than race pace, you should feel comfortable holding a conversation while running and not out of breath.
This may be difficult for beginners to gauge, since pacing is a learned skill that takes time. I find that running with friends, especially on the long runs, forces a reasonable pace because we’re talking. As long as we’re able to talk, we’re probably doing okay.
The benefit of better fat burning is for efficiency, not weight loss. As Lazy Girl Running says:
Very simply, your body runs on both fat and glycogen (from carbs) – just like your house might be powered by both gas and electric. The percentage of fat and glycogen that are powering you at any given minute will depend on the intensity of your activity. So sitting down reading this, you’re powered more by fat, but stand up and jump up and down for a few seconds and more glycogen will come into play.
…Running at an easy pace teaches your body to burn fat over glycogen for fuel. Which is handy because even a slim person has enough body fat to power them through 500 miles of running, but running on glycogen alone they’d struggle to get much beyond a half marathon.
Besides building your aerobic base, running slower enables you to run longer and, yes, faster. And when I say longer, I don’t just mean 15K instead of 10K. Running produces wear and tear on the body. Running hard puts us at greater risk.
I want to run into my seventies if I can (I’m about to turn 52 on Saturday). So if I want to keep going for another 20 or more years, I need to pace myself literally for the proverbial long run.
Like the Kenyan athletes, faster runners do most of their running at an easy pace. In “Train Slower, Run Faster,” Matt Fitzgerald explains that the only way to get faster is to run a lot. But you can’t run a lot at a high intensity without suffering burnout. Fitzgerald says “Research has shown that average weekly running mileage is the best training predictor of racing performance in runners. The more we run, the faster we race.”
So there you have it. If you want to run further, longer, for more years, and faster, the key is in the long slow distance run. It’s not just okay to slow down, it’s better.