If you’re not used to following a training plan or attended structured running sessions then there’s a fair chance that you may run most or all of your runs at a very similar pace. That pace will likely be the ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ pace where you can hold your own for an hour or so and just about sustain bursts of conversations: You never feel like you are really working close to your limit but you couldn’t sustain this pace for another couple of hours.
If you recognise this description then you certainly aren’t alone; many, or even most, runners fall into this way of training. If asked why they run at this pace, answers vary. Some common responses are:
- I haven’t even thought about it – its all I’ve ever done
- I run at the speed that feels natural/ comfortable
- If I’m going to get faster then I need to run fast all the time
- I’ve tried running slowly and I find it really uncomfortable
- I run in a group and so just run at the same pace as everyone else
- I don’t like looking like I’m a slow runner
- I don’t want to post slow runs on Strava
- I don’t have time to spend ages doing a slow run or a structured run, I just want to get out the house and get it done
Whatever the reason that we find ourselves in the ‘moderate’ zone, the reality is that this has a negative impact on our running. We should in fact be running mostly in the ‘easy’ zone, with a short amount of time spent in the ‘hard’ zone, where we are working close to maximum effort. This article looks at why easy-pace running is important, I’ll cover the hard efforts another time.
What is Easy Running?
We tend to use the terms ‘recovery-pace’ and ‘easy-pace runs to describe runs that take place in the lowest Heart Rate zones. There are various different Heart Rate zone systems, most of which have between between 3 and 7 different zones. I normally use the 80/20 HR zone system, and we are talking about Zones 1 and 2 in this system.
Beyond using HR as a guide, easy running can be measured in other ways:
- The ‘talk test’ – you should be able to hold a proper conversation without needing to take deep breaths between sentences
- Breathing – breathing should be slow and even and, especially in Zone 1, you should be able to breath through your nose rather than your mouth
- Perceived exertion – you should feel completely comfortable and as if you could continue at the same pace indefinitely
Why is it important?
It may seem counter-intuitive to say that in order to run faster we need to slow down. But it’s true. Easy running should form foundation of our running, whether we are aiming primarily for speed or endurance. Here’s a summary of the main reasons why:
1. Cardio-Vascular Adaptations
Slow running increases the quantity and size of the mitochondria in our muscles, which allows us to use oxygen and store glycogen and more efficiently produce the energy we need more efficiently (aerobic capacity).
It increases the mitochondrial density particularly of our slow twitch muscle fibres, which are surprisingly important when it comes to our higher effort runs. When we run at a high intensity, we produce higher volumes of lactate. This can be recycled as fuel but if we can’t recycle it quickly enough then it will start to build up in the muscles and cause us to slow down. Slow twitch muscle fibres are the most efficient at recycling lactate, so when we have a good volume of efficient slow twitch fibres we can sustain hard efforts for longer due to our ability to clear out and recycle the lactate.
2. Metabolic adaptations
Slow running also increases our reliance on fat as fuel and therefore make us better able to utilise fat as fuel during all our runs (sometimes known as fat-adapted). This is important as it allows us to preserves our comparatively small glycogen stores for use when we really need them during the higher intensity parts of our race.
3. Muscular-Skeletal System
It allows our muscular skeletal system to be subjected to the stress needed for positive adaptations without stressing it to the point where injury risk increases or significant recovery is required.
4. Low recovery time and injury risk
It has been shown that the positive adaptations from low intensity running increase as volume increases. Thankfully, low intensity running doesn’t stress the cardiovascular system excessively and so it requires little recovery time, therefore allowing us to run high volumes over consecutive days without the risk of over-training.
This also means that if we’’re training for a longer race, for example a half marathon, we can train our body to endure running and resist fatigue for that period of time without placing significant strain on it. If we attempted to train to run for this period at a moderate pace or close to race pace, we would need to take significant time out of training for recovery after, and would risk injury and persistent fatigue.
5. Improved running form
Running at an easy pace allows up to work on aspects of our running form. In particular it can help promote a relaxed running style without excessive tension in our upper body. We can use it to practice a rapid cadence without over-striding, good form which can then be transferred to our faster running.
6. Promotes recovery
A short recovery run the say after a hard effort can reduce recovery time by increasing the blood flow around your muscles and aiding in the clearance on unwanted byproducts.
So how do I slow down and do I need to ever run fast again?
As previously mentioned, we need to do a small amount of really high intensity training alongside this to improve our lactate shuttle (the process by which lactate is sent to the slow twitch fibres), as well as to get the benefit of other positive adaptations. A widely held and research-backed view is that we need to focus around 20% of of training to these hard efforts.
What we don’t need is lots of training somewhere in the middle – where we are stressing our body enough to require recovery and risk injury but not enough to produce positive adaptations. There is a place for some training at this intensity, for example as part of pace training for a specific race, but it should be the exception rather than our default mode.
If you’re convinced enough to give slow running a try, here’s a few tips:
- Don’t let slow mean sloppy. Your running form should still be good – use your easy runs as a chance to focus on this and give your form an MOT
- Whilst your cadence (the number of times per minute your feet strike the ground) will reduce a little, try to keep it as high as you can and focus on slowing down by reducing your stride length
- Accept that it may feel uncomfortable to begin with and you may have to walk at times to bring down your heart rate. This will improve and you should make significant progress within a few weeks
- Try to embrace the slow pace – it’s a great chance to clear your head, look at the scenery, take the dog out or explore a new route. Run with a friend or group, but only if you can trust them to have a slow chatty run
- Don’t cheat yourself out of progress just to look better on Strava – if you know this will be an issue then consider making some or all of your activities private whilst you get used to easy running
- Remember to schedule in at least 1 hard session each week and make sure you really push yourself in this. Ensure that these are hard, race specific and progressive
- Stick with it – you will hopefully become comfortable with easy running fairly quickly, but the big steps forward may take several months. This may be frustrating but it will be worth it.