Why Running Slower Isn’t Always the Answer

Why Running Slower Isn’t Always the Answer

If you’re a beginner runner, you’ve probably heard the advice that you’re running too fast and you need to slow the heck down. I’ve told you this. Our resident marathoner Meredith Dietz has told you this. But today I’d like to present the counterpoint: all the ways that running fast—maybe even “too fast”—can benefit you. 

Why everybody says you should run slower

To recap, everybody tells beginner runners to slow down because most beginners haven’t yet figured out how to run easy. Easy pace runs are the bread-and-butter of training. They’re low-fatigue and allow us to accumulate more mileage each week than if we were always pushing the pace.

If the only speed you know is an all-out sprint, you’ll never find your easy pace. You’ll never figure out how to jog. You’ll spend every run gasping for breath, and you’ll increase your chances of experiencing shin splints and a sense of dread at the thought of your next run. 

Those points aren’t wrong, they’re just not the whole picture. You should definitely work on finding your slower paces, and aim for most of your runs to feel easy-ish rather than treating every one of them like a breakneck race. But now that we have that caveat out of the way, let’s talk about why faster running also has its place. 

You need to run, not just shuffle

If your running pace is really slow—let’s say 13 to 15 minutes per mile, or around 4 m.p.h. on a treadmill—you’re doing a great job at keeping your overall effort easy, and that’s a huge accomplishment. 

But look at how you’re moving: Your feet are moving in sort of a slow shuffle, rather than a sprightly run. Now, shuffling isn’t badevery ultramarathoner counts it among their trustiest paces—it just shouldn’t be the only type of running you do. 

After all, running is a skill that takes practice, not just a source of zone 2 aerobic stimulus. When you’re a little bit faster and fitter, you can check both boxes at once. But until then, try to mix in some faster running, even if it comes in small doses. 

Try strides: A “stride” is a very short interval where the idea is to move your feet quickly, and then slow down and stop before you’ve done enough work to get tired. You could do this at the end of a run, or even in the middle to break up the monotony. Accelerate to a fast pace, hold it for just a few seconds, and then slow to a stop. Rest a minute or two before going again. As running coach Jason Fitzgerald told us, “strides are a wonderful way of practicing running fast without making that fast running difficult.” 

Intervals build fitness, too

Steady, slow-paced runs are great for building your aerobic fitness, but they’re not the only way. Tons of studies (and plenty of real-world experience) support the idea that interval work helps beginner and intermediate runners to get faster. To do intervals, you alternate working hard (a fast run) with easy work like walking or even complete rest. 

Some running coaches advise that beginners should get some experience under their belt before scheduling in structured intervals. But that’s not a universal sentiment: others believe that intervals can be added at any time, so long as you start with small doses

Try these: Here are some interval schemes that have been shown in research to benefit beginner and intermediate runners. Either set up an interval timer app, or go old school and just watch the clock. Take at least five minutes to warm up, and then dedicate the next 10 or 20 minutes to one of the following:

  • 30-20-10: Walk (or jog very slowly) for 30 seconds, then run at a medium pace for 20 seconds, then run fast for the last 10. Note that each round will take you exactly one minute. Do five, then rest for two minutes, and repeat as many times as you like.
  • 30/30s: This one is even simpler: 30 seconds fast, 30 seconds rest, repeat. After several rounds, take a few minutes’ break. (Experienced athletes will do 8-10 rounds, and then repeat this block multiple times; feel free to start with fewer.) 
  • Short “VO2max” intervals: Traditionally, intervals focused on improving your VO2max (one measure of cardio fitness) are three to five minutes, with an equal amount of rest. But you can also improve your VO2max with shorter intervals, like one minute on/one minute off. Ten one-minute intervals will take you 20 minutes; again, feel free to start with fewer. 

The key with all of these is not to run all-out during the work segments, but to hold back a bit, knowing that you’ll only get a short rest before going again. The first few intervals should feel like they’re almost too easy; by the end, you’ll be feeling them a lot more. 

You’re allowed to have fun

Running slow can be frustrating and boring. (That is, I think, the main reason why it’s so hard to learn to run slow in the first place.) All the focus on zone 2, and easy running, and building your aerobic base and all that jazz, leaves out the fact that it’s fun to run fast. 

You’re allowed to have fun. You don’t have to “earn” the right to run fast by achieving a certain cardio fitness level. You certainly don’t have to spend every run with your eyes glued to your watch, policing your heart rate or your mile pace. 

Try fartleks: The word is Swedish for “speed play,” but I’ll understand if you take it to mean, “lick my farts, I’m going to do what I want.” The only rule for a fartlek run is that there are no rules. Want to charge uphill and jog down? Or walk up because you’re tired, and run down because wheeeeeee? All fair game. If you use Strava, look up a few local “segments,” which are short bits of road where people unofficially race each other. Get to the start of the segment any way you like, then speed to the finish. Even if you don’t crack your local top 10, you can still see how you fared relative to your own previous performances. Whatever approach you choose, have fun with it.

Putting it all together

You don’t have to do all of these faster workouts, and you definitely don’t need to dump the slower runs. To build your fitness, try to keep at least half of your training at an easy-enough effort that you could keep up a conversation without getting out of breath. But it’s fine to include some of these ways of running faster, whether that’s a few strides at the end of an easy run, or a dedicated interval day. 

And finally, it’s fine to alternate between walking and running for any run, so long as you’re also working on the ability to keep up a steady pace. If you have to walk/run on those “easy run” days, aim to keep the running slow and the walking brisk; over time, they will meld together into a single, easier pace.

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