I know it sounds counter-intuitive at first and I am anticipating some scepticism. When you’re running fast, muscles burning, breathing strenuously and sweating profusely you can literally feel yourself getting fitter can’t you? But when you jog along chatting to your friend barely above a walking pace then surely this can’t be helping in the same manner. Let’s take a look….
Consistency, Balance and Adaptation
As mentioned in a previous blog consistent training is crucial if we want to improve. But consistency requires balance. In this case a mix of effort levels at which running is performed. In any single week it’s likely that 2-3 of the training sessions will involve some form of intensity, whether that be from the use of hills or faster running paces. The remaining run sessions should be easy to balance out those hard sessions, allowing for adaptations and some recovery to take place whilst maintaining an aerobic stimulus. Additionally, easier running promotes improved fat utilisation for energy production, that faster running does not. Slower running also helps stiffen tendons and connective tissues which facilitate improvements in economy through greater return of energy with each step. These improvements in aerobic processes including the ability to utilise fat and improvements in leg spring stiffness are likely to improve performances in endurance events without causing unnecessary fatigue, overtraining or injury.
What is a slow run? For me the main thing is that it has to ‘honestly’ feel easy to the athlete. So here we are talking about RPE (rating of perceived exertion). On a simple scale of 0-10, where 0 is resting and 10 is maximal effort, we would be looking for scores of 2-4. Other markers of an easy run are that the pace is conversational or that nasal breathing is possible. These markers take away the need for metrics which is another additional bonus; so-called ‘naked running’ reduces stress and the temptation to chase figures during a workout.
For those who wish to use training zone metrics then running in Zone 1 or maybe low Zone 2 is what we are looking at here (<85% lactate threshold HR or <80% lactate threshold pace).
Now slower paced runs can be progressed by duration. Progression is another crucial element in training but we progress these runs by distance or duration not by speeding up. Remember though that if this slow run pushes your current endurance capabilities then this then becomes one of your key sessions for the week (slow doesn’t always mean easy!).
Note that the pace required for a slow run may actually fall below the pace that we naturally fall into when we leave the house and so this run may initially take some concentration and you may also need to check that you aren’t losing your running form/technique. This would be the only indicator that you should run a little faster!
Easy or slower paced runs allow athletes to ‘switch off’ mentally from stresses associated with daily life and with training itself. Combine this with a chance to run with friends, to connect with nature or perhaps run in new unfamiliar places then you have a well-balanced run programme that should maintain your motivation, your love of running as well as ensure that you are mentally and physically prepared for the harder sessions in the week.
As a final point, also consider that calories burned are based upon distance run and not pace or time. So a run of 10km will take a certain number of kilojoules (cals) to complete and this doesn’t change whether you run it at threshold in 40mins or easy in 60mins. So if one of the goals of your running is to reduce or maintain weight then getting the distance in is the main consideration.
There you have it; slower running can help you run faster through a variety of mechanisms. You just have to be willing to give it a try.