For a long time, I was a “yo-yo runner”. I trained for 5Ks to the half marathon distance on as little training as possible. For the most part, I needed a race on the calendar to be consistent in training. Otherwise, I could hardly motivated myself to get out the door. And even when I was in “training mode”, I was often coming up with excuses in my head not to run. Either the weather was bad, my run the day before was too hard, I got shin splints, or I would just procrastinate all day until I didn’t have time to get out the door. Runs would get pushed back, and some pushed off the calendar completely.
My race times improved steadily despite my lack of enthusiasm at times, but I always knew there was more in me I wasn’t giving to the sport. I focused on HIIT training, other forms of cardio, and time at the gym rather than running. Mainly because it was easier [mentally] for me. I think part of it was fear that I wasn’t a “real runner”, and it took some time to get rid of that fear. It was too hard, and I wasn’t good enough at it to feel confident. It seemed to come so much more easily to others..why not me?
Then a switch happened a few years ago. Before training for my first marathon, I was doing a lot of research to makes sure I was prepared for 26.2 and kept coming across the same principle over and over again.
Ben Greenfield’s Beyond Training, Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20, Phil Maffetone’s MAF method, every elite in the sport, and every coach I knew of were saying the same thing.
To learn how to run fast, you have to train SLOW.
Up until that point, I thought every run had to be hard. If I wasn’t coming home doused in sweat, breathing heavy, and red in the face, it wasn’t a real workout. I would run every run as hard as I could for whatever distance it was. I’d try to leave enough in the tank to try to train the next day, but I also wanted to beat my pace on each and every run.
How was slowing down 1-2 minutes per mile for most runs going to help me? At first, it made no sense. I didn’t fully trust this method. So during my first marathon training cycle, I ran two of my shorter runs per week at a slower pace. However, I tried to run most of my long runs at goal marathon pace. I thought if I could do a 20-miler at ~9:00 min/mile, that would help me prepare for 26.2 miles at ~9:00/mile.
Well, during the marathon, I ended up hitting the wall and my average pace was around 9:42/mile. As it turns out, I didn’t slow down enough.
So, why train slow?
It Makes Running Fun & Enjoyable
I used to only be able to run if the volume on my loud music was turned all the way up. I would go crazy if I had heard my heavy breathing over the tiny speakers in my ears. I was running way too hard all the time. And who wants to do hard things all the time? No wonder I was always procrastinating!
When you slow down, it’s just. plain. easier. And you get to enjoy the run so much more. It takes some getting use to at first, but once your body adjusts to that slower pace, the run can actually feel good. You can enjoy your time outside and you’re not just looking forward to the run being over. You can look around and appreciate the neighborhood you’re in or trail you’re on. You can run with someone and actually have a conversation! I know this is a cheesy first reason, but it’s true. If you’re not happy during your time out there, what’s the point?
Running aerobically literally means “running with oxygen”. Your muscles are getting the oxygen they need to perform, adapt, and strengthen. Over time, your body starts to build more capillaries to allow for more oxygen to get to your muscles, making you more efficient. Your body is burning fat and carbohydrate steadily, so there are no rapid energy dips [what runners call bonking] in your training in this state. This all allows your body to adapt to your run and make you better at it next time you head out the door.
If you’re breathing heavily and panting during every run, your heart rate is probably very high and in an anaerobic state. Your body is stressed, you’re burning energy [carbs] quickly, and your muscles cannot handle the load they are receiving. Your body goes in to “recovery” mode instead of adapting to the stress your placing on it. And if you’re not adapting and growing from the stress, what’s the point of training? If you’re training too hard, you’re not seeing the full benefits of the work you’re putting in.
Increase in Running Volume
It’s pretty self-explanatory that if you run slower, you can complete more miles in training. Higher volume is crucial to increased aerobic capacity and endurance– which makes you a better runner at any distance. You can increase miles per day and days per week of running. More running (volume) makes you a better runner over time, as long as you’re recovering properly.
But recovery doesn’t just mean sitting on the couch binging on Netflix. You can go on easy recovery runs. Getting that time on your feet and allowing for that blood flow is great for allowing muscles to recover. Your body gets used to the mechanics of running and makes you more efficient. The more you use the little muscles in your feet and legs, and just simply move your body, the stronger you will become. Humans were meant to move, so if you love running, go out there and do it more often.
Reduces Risk of Injury
Running at high intensities stresses out the body. Too much stress will wear you out faster, break down your muscles, break down your form, lead to overtraining, and worse, cause a major injury. Your body can more easily handle runs at a lower heart rate with less stress on the body. You’re not breaking down as quickly and it allows for more and faster recovery in between sessions. You can rack up the mileage safely and effectively when you’re not running yourself in to the ground every time you put your running shoes on.
As I mentioned, I had learned my lesson the hard way in my first marathon. So after that mistake, I put my trust in to this training method.
During my most recent marathon training cycle, I did all of my long runs 1:00-2:00 minutes slower than I ran the marathon. I only did 1-2 speed sessions per week. About 80% of my training was done at a low heart rate, and I came out of most runs feeling like I didn’t work hard enough. It was scary at first to trust that my body could run faster AND longer on race day. But it did.
I PRed by 21 minutes and hit my exact goal pace.
It’s hard to slow down. It makes you feel like “less of a runner” at first. If you’ve ever run with a friend with a slower pace, you know it can actually be harder to run slower! But runners like “hard” 🙂 So if you don’t already – challenge yourself to go slow.
Take your “race pace” and add at least 60 seconds to it. Try to keep your cadence high (~180 strides per minute) despite the slower speed. Make sure your heart rate is below 70% of your max. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, try the “talk test” and see if you can speak a few sentences at a time. Or try breathing through your nose only. If you can’t, slow down a bit more.
Eventually this aerobic training will make you more efficient over time. You will be able to speed up and still keep your heart rate low. Once you’ve become more efficient, you can add speed in strategically and incrementally.
And if you’re running slow 80% of the time, think of how much energy you’ll have when you DO add speed in the other 20% of the time! You can perform at even higher intensities and get faster results. You’re putting out more work with less effort, which will lead to increased speeds during hard training days and races.
So I know this post is all about “running slow”, but it’s not necessarily about slowing down. It’s about running at the appropriate pace each time you head out the door to accomplish both short and long-term goals. This principle allows you to run further, longer, and eventually faster. And most importantly (for me), it is key to making you a runner for life.