Runners like to focus on getting faster, but especially if you're new to running, you might be missing a key part of your training: learning to run slower, too. You need several "gears" in slow, medium, and fast speeds to get the most out of different types of workouts (and perform better in races).
Why You Need More Gears Than Just "Go Fast"
When I first started running, I had a favourite trail near my house that I ran over and over. I figured if I ran for the same amount of time each workout, I'd cover more distance on each run. Guess what? It didn't work. I never got any faster.
I've seen countless new runners try the same thing: either holding the time constant and expecting to cover more distance, or running the same distance and hoping to cover it in less time. But think about what that means for your overall workout program: you're doing the same workout, at the same effort level, every day. That's a recipe for hitting a plateau.
Here's what does work: Mixing up speeds and distances. Slow running builds your endurance, fast running builds strength, and medium-speed runs help you learn to sustain a hard effort. These types of workouts fit together like puzzle pieces. You need them all to progress.
The Three Gears You Should Have, And The Benefits Of Each
Here's a quick rundown of the benefits of training at slow, medium and fast speeds. I'm summarising almost the whole field of exercise physiology here, so if you want to learn more, I'd recommend digging through the training archives at a place like Runner's World or Competitor. But here are the basics.
Slow running builds your "aerobic base", and most coaches agree it should be the foundation of your running program, making up most of your weekly miles. With lots of easy running, your body will build more capillaries to bring oxygen to your muscles. You'll also increase the numbers of mitochondria in your muscle cells, which means you can burn more calories to fuel your running. In short: better endurance. You'll be able to run longer and longer, and develop the ability to run faster even at your easy pace.
Fast running builds strength and power. Intervals of fast running are a great counterpart to slow easy miles: each builds a different type of fitness, and you'll run best when you've done both. We'll have more on this topic later in the week.
Medium pace running is sort of weird. As a beginner trying to push the pace over a 20 or 30 minute run, this is probably where you've logged most of your miles. But in a sense it's the worst of both worlds: You aren't running slow enough to get all the benefits of easy running, and not fast enough to get all the benefits of fast running. There is a place for them, though. Medium pace runs include tempo and lactate threshold runs, which are a key part of training for experienced runners: they help you train your body to hold an uncomfortable pace for long periods of time.
Step One: Learn To Run Slowly
Slow is the most difficult pace for new runners to learn. I just started running, you might say, and it's so hard. And now you want me to run easy? That's an oxymoron!
It will take time to find your slower gears, but it's 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, or enjoy your scenery and your favourite playlist, but you're still running. When you find that easy gear, it almost feels like cheating: this still counts as exercise?
Here's a workout that will help you find that pace: in-and-outs. Find a track. Run as slow as you can on the turns, and a little faster on the straightaways. (If you don't have a track, pick some landmarks every 100 metres or so on a trail or road.) Your goal here is just to feel a difference between the two: you have a faster pace and a slower pace, and they are both running (not walking). After the faster segments, you'll feel relieved to settle into your slow pace. See that? You have a slow pace that feels easy!
Next, try it on a regular run, and see if you can do the whole run, or most of it, at an extremely slow pace. Watching your time or pace can be frustrating, so focus on how the run feels: hopefully easier and more enjoyable. Allow yourself the extra time, and pick some good scenery, music, or company to keep yourself in a good mood.
Step Two: Give Up Walking Breaks (Optional But Recommended)
Your first day of running was probably a stop-and-go mix of running (probably too fast) and walking breaks. That's normal. But after a while -- perhaps by the end of your couch-to-5K program -- you'll be ready to experiment with "easy" running. Does that mean giving up the walk breaks?
If you're used to taking a walking break every couple of minutes, you're probably using the run/walk pattern as an alternative to running slow. It's not automatically a bad thing (there are a handful of experienced runners who choose this pattern) but if you tell yourself you "need" the walk breaks, it's probably because you haven't found a slow enough gear.
If your walking breaks are only occasional, you're probably using them more as a mental than a physical break. As you train more, you'll want more control over your pace (deciding whether to set out for a 9 or a 10 minute mile, rather than running at a 9-minute pace and then needing to catch your breath), so remember that you can take a mental break without walking. For example, you can change up the songs you're listening to, or choose a mantra or focus for each mile. You can even run faster for 30 seconds -- sometimes that provides just enough distraction to help the next slow run segment feel more comfortable.
Step Three: Reap The Benefits
Now that you have a slow and a medium gear (and I trust you can figure out the fast gear on your own), you can set goals for each workout. You can tell yourself "Today is an easy day" and stick to that -- at least half of your workouts should fall into this category. You can even make these easy runs longer. Ever wanted to run five miles? That might be impossible at your previous I'm-going-to-die-after-30-minutes-of-this pace, but gets surprisingly doable once you figure out how to slow down. Allow yourself the extra time guilt-free. Even marathon runners refer to their once-a-week long runs as LSD, for "long slow distance".
If you do want to work up to a long-distance goal race (like a 10K or a half or full marathon), build up time before you worry about distances. For example, if you want to run a marathon and your best guess is that it will take you 4.5 hours, your training should have you working up to running 4.5 hours at a time -- but because it's slow, you won't be running the actual marathon mileage (and so you'll be able to walk afterwards, unlike what you'll experience after your actual marathon).
If you're worried about running too slowly, don't! On any good marathon training plan, you'll do a lot of slow mileage and a small amount of faster mileage. (This applies even when training for much shorter events, like a 5K). The faster mileage is harder on your body, but the slower mileage builds a base of aerobic fitness that a few fast miles can help fine-tune.
There seems to be a benefit in terms of injury risk, too. Easy miles support more "quality" miles (as fast or difficult running is called). Those slow runs work your muscles, tendons, and bones gently without putting extreme stress on them. That helps them build up to withstand harder work.
I got past my own plateau with both slow running and fast intervals (as well as leg work in the gym). Build more variety into your running, and you'll probably find that running slower, in the long run, can make you faster.
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