In this training tips article, coach Dan Lyne breaks down why running slow helps you get faster. Read on for a break down of what slow running is, how to find your slow speed, and how to add it into your training:
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.
What is Slow Running?
Slow running – also called “easy running” – is generally a pace that allows you to easily make conversation. Of course, slow is a relative term. For elite runners, this can mean 6:30-6:45 min/mile pace. Meanwhile for many others, a slow pace could be anywhere between 8-12+ mins/mile. 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 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.”
Benefits of Running Slow
Slow running 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 facilitates blood flow to muscles that need repair after a hard workout.
- Strengthens muscle groups in the legs, torso & arms
- Adapts the tendons, ligaments, joints and bones to the stress of sustained running
- Promotes a more efficient running form
- Teaches you to handle the rigors of physical discomfort
- Adds pleasure to your run with self-reflection or conversation with friends
You need to run slow to build your base and prevent injury that results from always running fast. But most important, slow running helps us recover faster.
Examples of Slow Running in Your Training
You should add slow running into your training several times per week. For example, do some slow running:
- Between harder bouts/intervals on a track
- Between bursts during a fartlek run
- After running uphill
- On your “easy” days
Slowing down during your runs decreases 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 (like this one) 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 to Find Your Slow Running Pace
Finding your “slow running” pace takes a little bit of time because it is different for everyone. 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, and 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). Plus, when you slow down, you can enjoy a conversation with a friend, but you’re still running.
Here is an exercise I recommend to my athletes to find their slow pace:
First, find a track or path that lets you mark your progress 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 first. Instead, run 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.
If you are executing this drill on a path, alternate between slow and fast running 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.
Coach Greg McMillan once taught me the following talk-test tool (pace and amount of talk) that can help you dial in the correct pace for a given workout.
Endurance = conversation
Stamina = sentences
Speed = words
Sprint = silence
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 training plan where a range (heart rate 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.
Your Fast and Medium Running Pace
Medium (or Tempo) Runs
Medium or “steady” paced runs are very important components of half and marathon training. However, medium-paced running can be challenging because it is faster than slow-paced running, but you go at a pace that can be sustained for 20-30+ minutes. Also called tempo runs, your medium-paced run should be sustained at a speed of 7 on your scale of 1-10. 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.
Finally, to build strength and power, incorporate fast runs into your training plan. 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 optimize your performance. By running slow, you will ultimately become a faster runner.
Learn more about running speeds with these tips from other Team RunRun coaches:
Dan Lyne is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Dan, check out his coaching page.