Do you want to be a faster runner? You might think that the best way to do this is to simply practice running faster. Although this is partially true, what many runners don’t realize is that to get faster, you must train yourself to run slower. This can be a problem for runners, especially many beginner runners who don’t understand how to do this. In this article, I will not only outline the benefits gained by running slow, but also provide a step-by-step strategy to teach runners of any ability how to develop multiple training gears or speeds. I’ve trained many athletes to use this process and I’m confident it’s one of the easiest ways to improve both strength and speed.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with a number athletes who complain that they’re slow or don’t like running. They tell me that they get out of breath too easily every time they run or they simply don’t have the patience or persistence to continue to run. The good news is that you don’t need to push through this awful experience to get in shape. You can actually get in pretty good shape by simply slowing down.
Why Slow Running is Important
Slow running (or at conversation pace) should be one of the key components of any running program regardless of the length of race for which you’re training. Some of the many benefits of conversation paced running include:
- Trains the cardio-respiratory system and muscular systems to efficiently absorb, deliver and utilize oxygen while removing waste products, such as carbon dioxide & lactic acid – In other words, running at an easy pace helps facilitate blood flow to muscles that need repair after a hard workout (fast running or long run).
- Strengthens muscle groups in the legs, torso & arms
- Adapts the tendons, ligaments, joints and bones to the stress of sustained running
- Can help to promote a more efficient running form
- Assists in teaching the runner to handle the rigors of physical discomfort
- Provides the runner with the pleasure of self-reflection or conversation with friends
You need to run slow to build your base and help prevent injury that would certainly result from always running fast. But most important, slow running helps us speed recovery. Slow, also called easy running, is completed numerous times each week. A few examples include: between harder bouts/intervals on a track, between bursts during a fartlek run, after running uphill and the most common slow run is on your “easy” days. Slowing down during your runs helps to decrease your chance of injury and enables you to get more out of your harder workout days because there will be less residual fatigue. Running slow enables you to increase your overall weekly mileage as you progress with your training.
Without getting too technical or into the science of the body, it’s safe to say that there’s evidence and numerous articles written documenting how low intensity training, at a cellular level, increases the quantity and size of mitochondria, improving the muscle’s ability to receive and process oxygen and conserve stores of glycogen.
How Slow is Slow??
Slow is a relative term. For elite runners this can mean 6:30-6:45 min/mile pace. While for many others, a slow pace could be anywhere between 8-12+ mins/mile. So obviously, slow is a relative term. If you train by heart rate, then easy/slow is generally 65-80% of your max HR.
Despite it’s importance, running slow is a difficult pace for new runners. Most people who start training regularly, often run at a pace that is too difficult to maintain for any significant length of time. Alternatively, they may run too fast on their easy days, making it difficult to run at assigned paces on hard days. This results in running not being “enjoyable,” which then makes training much more difficult. In their book, Peak Performance, Magness & Stulberg talk about the equation of Stress + Rest = Growth. They share that “the American College of Sports Medicine, has officially endorsed training in this manner to increase size & strength.”
How to Find Your Slow Gear
To complete this exercise, I recommend running on a track or a path that includes some landmarks (light posts) every 100 yards or so. If you’re attempting this drill on a track, run at a conversational pace where you can talk without getting out of breath. Don’t worry about your speed, at this point you’re running by what you feel. Run this pace on the straightaways and then run a little faster on the turns. Think about only being able to talk in sentences. On a path, alternate slow/faster every 100 yards. Your goal is to feel the difference between fast and slow pace. Work on this regularly and you’ll notice the relief you get when you run at your slow pace. You’re able to run, but now at a pace that feels easy! It takes practice.
The next step is to try this exercise on a regular run and see if you can maintain the slower pace for the entire run. As you progress through these slower paced runs, focus on how you feel and make adjustments to the pace so you can finish without stopping for the entire run. Eventually your slow pace will get faster.
On a scale of 1-10, slow running is 3-6, (where 1 would be a slow walk). How slow you go depends on the workout. I assign my athletes 3 slow paces. They are Recovery jog, long run & easy run pace. You will run at your slowest in between intervals during your speed workouts. You will run at a 4-6 level on the longer and easy runs. It can take time to find your “slower gears,” but once you do, it’s well worth it. In addition to the aerobic benefits, there’s a mental benefit too: running will no longer hurt (as much). When you slow down, you can enjoy a conversation with a friend, but you’re still running.
Coach Greg McMillan once taught me the following talk test tool (pace & amount of talk) that can help you dial in the correct pace for a given workout.
Endurance = conversation
Stamina = sentences
Speed = words
Sprint = silence
Your Fast and Medium Gears
Medium or “steady” paced runs are very important component of half and marathon training. However, medium pace running can be challenging because it’s faster than slow paced running, but you go at a pace that can be sustained for 20-30+ minutes. Tempo runs are at a medium pace. On a scale of 1-10, it’s a sustained faster pace around 7. If you’re using a heart rate monitor, you want to target 80-90% of your max heart rate or 155-175bpm for most runners. The pace is uncomfortable, but it can be maintained for much longer than your fastest pace. In marathon training, these medium paced runs are often around half marathon pace. If you’re training for a half marathon, then your medium pace may be closer to your 10k pace. Performing runs at medium speed teaches your body to hold a challenging pace for long periods of time while still being able to remove waste products, such as carbon dioxide or lactic acid. Completing these Tempo runs at a faster, but not too fast pace, is a great way to improve stamina with lower muscle stress.
Fast running builds strength and power. Fast running is at 8-9 effort level or 85-95% of your max heart rate. Most fast running is completed on a track in the form of Intervals. However, to vary the terrain of your workouts, fast runs can also be completed during fartlek or hills. Running fast isn’t sustainable for an entire workout. You will have to incorporate some slow running for recovery. However, you’ll see vast improvements in your fitness if you complete fast workouts in your training plan.
Incorporating Varying Speeds into Your Workouts
Now that you have these three gears, it’s time to set goals for each workout. Commit to easy days, moderate workouts and fast/challenging days. Ideally, 80% of weekly mileage should be run at a slow and easy pace; with the remaining 20% at faster/moderate running (tempos, steady state and speedwork, etc). As you gain endurance, the easy runs will be longer mileage. Beginner runners may only start at 2-3 miles, with frequent stops, but using this program of running slow and training your body to run at varying speeds and intensities will help optimize your performance. Which will ultimately result in you becoming a faster runner.
Other Tips for Slow Running
- Go by feel, then heart rate, then pace.
- Go without music OR listen to slow music when you run
- Run with someone who is not capable of running your “hard pace”. Just keep talking throughout the run.
- Use a plan where a range (HR or Pace) is provided for easy/slow runs. Depending on a number of factors, easy pace can vary day-to-day. You are not a robot, so slow down if one day’s easy pace, suddenly feels too hard.
Dan Lyne is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Dan, check out his coaching page.