Training slow has been seen as a sign of weakness or laziness. However, if you want to run (or bike, or swim) faster, a smart approach is to slow down and train “slowly by slowly.”
“Slowly by slowly” is something I have a tough time getting across to the runners I coach. People usually come to me expecting and perhaps hoping that I will kick their butt into shape. I can often see a bit of relief in their eyes when I tell them that we are going to spend a few weeks preparing their body for running before we even start the run portion of their run training, but I can also see some disappointment in their eyes. We westerners are not good at this little thing called patience. We just want to dive in and exhaust our willpower in as short amount of time as possible and then bask in the results. That is not how “slowly by slowly” works.
If we are not hurting, panting and covered in sweat, how can it be effective?
The other issue we westerners have is that we want all of our workouts to leave us exhausted. If we are not hurting, panting, and covered in sweat, how can it be effective? Well, again, this is where the Kenyans, particularly those in Patrick Sang’s group, outdo us. They are extremely dedicated to being the absolute best runners they can be but they know that busting a gut, day after day, is not the way to do that.
And that leads me to the other aspect of the “slowly by slowly” philosophy I want to highlight today: the actual speed at which the runners train is all over the map. And that includes running surprisingly slowly the majority of the time.
In a study titled How do endurance runners actually train? Relationship with competition performance, researchers found that total training time spent at low intensities might be associated with improved performance during highly intense endurance events. Now that seems contradictory, doesn’t it? The event is high intensity but the training is low? How does that work?
Well, we know that a runner's heart rate usually follows a linear relationship to their running intensity (your heart beats faster the faster you run), so these particular researchers took eight well-trained, sub-elite endurance runners and had them perform a maximal cardiorespiratory exercise test before beginning a 6-month training block. Their heart rate was then continuously recorded using telemetry during each and every training session over the 6-month macrocycle, which was designed to achieve peak performance in the national cross-country championships. By monitoring them so closely, they were able to quantify the total time that the runners spent in three intensity zones.
Zone 1: Light intensity. This zone had an average heart rate below 140 beats per minute or 60 percent of the runner’s VO2 max.
Zone 2: Moderate intensity. This zone had an average heart rate between 140 and 171 bpm or 60 to 85 percent of VO2 max.
Zone 3: High intensity. With an average heart rate above 171 bpm or over 85 percent of their VO2 max.
During the training block, the fastest runners performed 71 percent of their training in Zone 1, only 21 percent of their time in Zone 2, and a paltry eight percent in Zone 3.
The runners who had shuffled the most training time in the low-intensity zone fared the best in the big race.
So as you can see, and as I indicated earlier, the runners who had shuffled the most training time in the low-intensity zone fared the best in the big race.
The reason why low-intensity running yields such great dividends is that it improves what we call Maximal Aerobic Fitness, Maximum Aerobic Function (or just MAF). Meaning that it has a more significant impact on heart and lung function while also putting in the necessary stressors on the legs, feet, and hips. So, yes, spending time enjoying a leisurely run is not only a nice way to spend some time but it can have a direct and positive impact on your race time. As long as it is countered with some of the hard stuff!
Going back to Patrick Sang and the “slowly by slowly” philosophy, “Every session is a building block,” Sang said. They work hard but not every day.