Talent can take you far, but as any elite level runner can tell you, talent is nothing without the commitment to train….HARD! The best runners on the planet frequently log weekly mileage in excess of 100 miles.
This weekly gauntlet often includes hill work, intervals, fartlek, and other gut-wrenching workouts designed to separate the pretenders from the contenders. No pain, no gain, right? Not exactly.
Believe it or not, a significant portion of the mileage logged by the best runners on the planet can best be characterized as ‘easy’. How easy? Try a minute to two minutes slower than race pace.
Some of these individuals can crank out 26.2 miles at sub-5 minute pace without batting an eye, so what’s to be gained from slogging out a few miles at a comparatively ‘glacial’ pace? A lot, actually.
But, before we get into the specific gains one can derive from running slow, let’s take a closer look at running ‘fast’. When we run at a fast pace we’re putting TREMENDOUS strain/stress on bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
At the end of a tough run, you’re looking at microtears in muscle fiber, dehydration, glycogen depletion, and other wonderful gems. Good thing the best in the world tend to have a ‘team’ of people to take care of them after knocking out a tough tempo run.
There’s serious trauma associated with the act of running fast. Running fast all the time clearly won’t work over the long haul because sustained trauma over time will inevitably lead to burnout and breakdown.
Enter ‘slow’ running. Anyone who’s done a tough run and has tried to run the next day knows (or will come to know in short order) that trying to run fast/hard isn’t a good idea. Chances are, you’ve got microtears in muscle fiber, marked soreness/fatigue in your legs, and general ‘flatness’ across the board.
In theory, you could take a full day of rest after a tough run the previous day, but you’re not maintaining or enhancing your running fitness too much by doing this. Granted, rest days absolutely are requisite and I would never say otherwise.
But, the ‘gentle’ stress of an easy run interspersed between taxing runs is a wonderful way to maintain your running fitness between challenging runs and help expedite the healing and recovery process.
Running slow applies ‘gentle’ stress to all of the key physiological systems required to run at a high level. Gentle, easy running helps ‘let the healing begin’. Think of it as ‘active recovery’ that helps facilitate blood flow ‘gently’ to the damaged muscles that need help.
Independent of expediting the healing process, running slow is the most effective way to ‘build a base’. There are a million different training philosophies and approaches out there one can utilize to get into quality running shape. Virtually ALL of them include some kind of ‘base building’ phase comprised largely of EASY running.
This base building is PARTICULARLY important for those brand new to the sport. Logically and intuitively, this makes sense. You need to expose the body to gentle, consistent stress to develop the key systems to just support the act of running and then gradually introduce running that’s a bit faster and more intense, if desired.
Think of slow running as the foundation of your running ‘house’. You wouldn’t build a house without a foundation and building a regular running routine or regimen is no different. Without a solid foundation of easy miles, you’re looking at a house that’s liable to collapse under duress.
If avoiding collapse is the ultimate goal, slow running is the answer. I know many runners who simply build a solid, easy base and are very happy with this and they tend not to get injuries over the long haul. This is another thing to consider when logging easy miles. There is a lower incidence of aggravations and injuries associated with running easy.
While I am all for personal bests and winning races (which pretty much requires doing some hard running), there’s increased risk associated with this. If your long-term goal is to run for years and years, limiting the number of times you push the envelope is a wise approach.
But, one need not choose to be a ‘tortoise’ OR a ‘hare’. Too much ‘tortoise’ and you’re looking at performance plateaus. Too much ‘hare’ and you’re looking at increased risk of aggravations and injuries. You can actually be both and ultimately, it’s training a bit like both that will take your running to the next level.
The reality is that most runners suffer from a bit too much running like the ‘hare’. So, the next time you find yourself out on the road trying to set a landspeed record, reflect on the training you’ve done recently. It just might be time for you do a slow run and take it easy.