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Running at a slow, easy pace is the single biggest building block for developing as a runner. Yes, slow is relative, but no matter how fast or slow you can run, most of the running you do should be slow to you. That might sound counterintuitive though – run slow to get faster?
How will I progress if I’m not consistently running hard?
How is it good training if it doesn’t feel like hard work?
But won’t I plateau if most of the time I’m running at a pace that isn’t pushing me?
How will I get used to running fast if I’m not consistently running fast?
We’ve heard it all. And it’s – without a doubt – easy to fall into the trap of thinking the faster the training, the better. But let’s stop right there. Running slow not only builds your aerobic base (i.e. the backbone of your entire running capacity – more on this shortly) and allows for physical development only possible when running easy, it also reduces injury risk and makes sure you actually get the most out of your training when you do run hard.
Run hard – or even just moderately hard – all the time and you’ve got a one-way ticket to injuries, plateaus and runner burn out.
Builds Aerobic Base
As running is an endurance sport, your body’s aerobic energy system is what you’ll mainly be relying on when running. The actual process that occurs in your body is quite complicated, and therefore we won’t get into the nitty gritty here – instead just know that the aerobic system utilizes oxygen and allows you to run for long periods of time. The faster you run, however, the more the aerobic system won’t be able to keep up, and the anaerobic system starts to churn away. The anaerobic system produces energy without oxygen, and while it produces a lot of energy quickly, it depletes quickly as well. In other words, there’s enough time and “space” for the body to take in and use oxygen towards running energy when you go slower (and that’s slower to you), whereas the body transitions to quicker sources once the pace increases – sources that won’t last very long.
You can train that aerobic system of yours in two ways. One by making it more efficient, allowing you to run faster and longer at the same effort, and two, by increasing your aerobic threshold so that you can run faster before your anaerobic system kicks on. Both of these are done by – drum roll – running slow.
Cellular Level Development
Physiologically, a range of changes occur as you develop your aerobic system. Some of these include an increase in red blood cells, capillary growth, mitochondrial growth and density, and increase of aerobic enzymes. All of these physical developments come as a result of slow, easy running. An increase in red blood cells means more oxygen can be carried to the muscles, in turn increasing their ability to work. Capillary growth yields more pathways for our blood to travel in our bodies. Increased mitochondrial density – or simply more mitochondria – results in greater ability to convert oxygen to energy. And at the end of the day, your running capacity comes down to how efficiently your body can utilize oxygen when running. Looking at these physiological changes, we see that running slow and easy is the best way to develop that very ability.
Reduces Injury Risk
Running at an easier, slower pace also means you’ll face a much lower risk of injury. No matter the pace we run at, our bodies are put under stress – but you’re putting your body under much less stress when running easy versus hard. The less wear that you put on your muscles, bones and joints, the lower the risk of developing an injury, simply. When you run hard, there is greater breakdown that requires time to heal up and recover, and if you don’t give your body that time, you’re much more likely to get injured. This is why only a few sessions a week should be so-called “quality sessions” (i.e. speedier sessions) and the rest easy.
Keep Your Easy Runs Easy and Your Hard Runs Hard
On top of all the easy running, you’ll want to do some hard effort running. And to get all the benefits from the work at a harder effort, you’ll need your body to not be completely beat up and exhausted from the rest of your training. Running easy the majority of the time allows you to get the most out of your harder sessions. If you are running too hard on your easy days, when it’s time to do an interval session, you won’t be able to push yourself enough to really see the benefits there. You’ll end up in an undesirable middle ground of neither developing your base, nor developing your speed – and working really hard for nothing.
How Slow Is Slow Enough?
For many, it’s a challenge to run slow, and your easy pace might be slower than you actually think. Your pace should be so comfortable that you can keep up a conversation without much huffing and puffing at all. If running by yourself, try repeating a sentence and see if you fall behind on your breathing. Another test is to try breathing only through your nose, which should generally be doable (except when going up a hill, for example). When looking at heart rate zones, easy running can be found in zones 1 and 2 when looking at a 5 zone system. We do like to emphasize the importance of finding the right paces and efforts (for you) without looking at your heart rate, as that can be affected by many different factors beyond the actual running you’re doing.
Can You Go Too Slow?
No, to a certain extent. As long as you’re not walking, you’ll get the aerobic benefit we’re after from these runs. However, go very very slow all the time, and you’ll get used to that pace and it might feel difficult to ramp it up at all. As important as it is to run slow, it’s also incredibly important to not just run slow, all the time – which leads us to our next blog post, part 2, Why You Need to Run Fast to Run Fast(er), where we’ll get into the importance of harder effort running to improve both the pace you can run easy at, and run faster for longer.
By doing the majority of your training at an easy pace, you’re laying the groundwork needed to improve as a runner. You’re developing your aerobic system to become more efficient at utilizing oxygen to produce energy, reducing your injury risk, and making room to go hard when it matters the most.
Part 2: Why You Need to Run Fast to Run Fast(er) – Coming Soon
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