There’s no doubt–you know what a hard workout feels like. Your heart is pumping faster than your legs, you’re drenched in sweat, out of breath. And though you feel like you could collapse, you’re on top of the world by the end. But do you know what a truly slow running feels like? Picture yourself running at a slow pace–one foot in front of the other. Everything feels good. Your breath is controlled, you’re itching to give it more. Now picture yourself running at an even slower pace than that.
Successful long-distance runners know how to pace themselves in all scenarios of training–especially the easy days.
More often than not, recreational runners are pushing too fast too often.
In this article, we’re looking at how slow running impacts performance, and we make the argument for slowing down on your next run.
What is slow running?
Despite what anyone tells you, slow running is not a new concept and it’s certainly not novel to beginners.
As you run, your fitness and your speed will improve. When you feel like you can run faster, it can be hard to take yourself down a notch.
The “slow running” phenomenon is colloquially (and sometimes sarcastically) referred to as jogging.
In Japan there is a different name for it: niko niko pace. Late professor Hiroaki Tanaka, founder of the Institute for Physical Activity, was the major proponent of “niko niko pace”–or an enjoyable pace that makes you smile.
If you want to know whether you’re slow running or not – here’s the test.
Can you keep that pace while simultaneously talking, also known as The Talk Test.
If you want to get more technical about it, you can measure it with running pace, heart rate, or power output but the Talk Test works well for most.
What are the benefits of slow running?
Did you know that you can run fast on race day, after running slow the majority of your training days? It’s true.
Training at different intensities works different systems of your body. It’s important to have a mix of training paces and intensities in your schedule whether you’re in 5K, 10K, half marathon, or full marathon training mode.
Being a slow runner today does not mean you should never or will never run fast again. And remember, fast and slow is relative to your personal fitness level.
Easy running is crucial for base building part of training and for longer distance runs.
How slow running impacts endurance
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), easy cardio exercise is key for improving overall endurance. One key adaptation that occurs is an increase in the quantity and size of mitochondria in your muscle fibers, says Sandi Nypaver, a coach with Higher Running.
Mitochondria, if you remember from middle school biology, is where cellular energy is generated.
Simply: slow running improves the amount of energy capacity you have in your muscle fibers.
How slow running impacts fat
Training at lower intensity is when maximal fat oxidation occurs. Your body uses stored fat over carbohydrates to fuel its movement.
Metabolically, an endurance runner will train your body to rely on the extra store of energy when glycogen (the term for stored carbohydrates) runs low. When preparing for any sort of endurance race, athletes will increase their intake of carbohydrates, also known as a “carbo load,” in order to increase the amount of carbohydrates they have accessible for energy production.
How slow running impacts training
On the topic of training – longevity and consistency are pivotal.
Consistently pushing your running pace is a recipe for overuse injuries. Whether you’re a recreational runner or an Olympic hopeful, no runner benefits from being injured.
Another underrated value of running slower is that it is mentally less taxing.
Running at a conversational pace is fun, especially when shared with a friend. And when you’re enjoying yourself, you’re more likely to build consistency in any fitness endeavor. Here’s a scientific study that verifies just that, in case you need evidence to back that up.
Research on running slowly
One study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found little difference between training slow versus fast in a small sample of recreational runners (40 total). The study participants were split up into two groups, one running a high-intensity protocol and the other focused on low-intensity training runs with a long run each week.
Both groups began their training with a warm up and finished with a cool down. The high intensity training consisted of 6 3-minute intervals at maximum effort with 2 minute walking breaks.
The low intensity group stayed at an easy effort for their runs, increasing the duration throughout the protocol.
By the end of the study, each group had equally improved their 3,000 meter performance.
The only difference was that the low intensity group reported feeling less sore throughout training. You can count that as a win for running longevity.
The study authors go on to note, however, that it is likely a combination of high intensity and low intensity training that would be “optimal for long-term development of endurance capacity.”
Hard workouts have their place, too, in training the mitochondria to be more efficient and increase your tolerance to the waste product from energy production–lactate. But to truly reap the rewards of the hard days, you need to have plenty of running recovery and low intensity days in between.
How to incorporate running slow into your training
Ready to join the legions of slower runners? First, you need to determine how you’ll hold yourself accountable to slow running and the markers that you’re pursuing the right easy pace for you.
Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) is the highest output of beats per minute your heart can reach in an all-out effort like sprinting.
According to the ACSM your age, genetics, and fitness level all play a factor in your MHR. The easiest way to estimate your MHR without going through a clinical stress test is to do the following equation:
220 – Age = MHR
Now that you know your general MHR, you can start to break down your heart rate zones.
Easy, Zone 2 training should put you at 60 – 75% of your MHR. If you follow the 80/20 training method, that means 80% of your training would be run keeping your heart rate in that window, while 20% is reserved for moderate and intense paces (Zones 3-5).
Under those circumstances the majority of your runs will focus on building aerobic fitness, while a smaller portion will focus on anaerobic vigorous exercise (which increases your lactate threshold).
It’s important to note that other factors can also impact your heart rate, even if you are keeping your pace somewhat easy. Those factors are heat, running at high altitude, dehydration, mental stress, and lack of fuel.
Heart Rate Zone Chart
If you ever need a reference, here is a simple Heart Rate Zone Chart for reference.
|Zone 1 Heart Rate
|55% – 65% of MHR
|Zone 2 Heart Rate
|65% – 75% of MHR
|Zone 3 Heart Rate
|75% – 85% of MHR
|Zone 4 Heart Rate
|85% – 90% of MHR
|Zone 5 Heart Rate
|90% of MHR and above
If you want to plan your easy runs based on pace, there are fancy calculators like this one that allow you to input your marathon pace through 5K pace to determine what your easy pace should be.
But, it doesn’t need to be that complicated.
A general rule of thumb is that your easy pace will be about 2 minutes slower than your race pace.
If that pace is so slow that you feel like it’s compromising your running form, then feel free to adjust.
Go By Feel or Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE)
Another way to run easier is to go by feel. Listen to the signals your body is putting out.
We’ve already gone over the talk test, a tried and true method.
You can quantify what an easy pace is by by using the Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE), which is a simple scale of 1-10. 10 being an all-out effort.
The easy run should be the 3-4 range. But, that’s up to you to determine what a 3-4 really feels like when experimenting with your RPE.
Research shows that the majority of people who use a fitness tracker of some sort, don’t rely on the hard data alone, but are still keen to train by feel. While another study found that people running by feel are not likely to default to easy paces.
Final Thoughts on Slow Running
Not interested in holding all those metrics in your head?
A running coach can tell you how and when to run your easy days and take all the guesswork out of it.
You should also consider an app like Runna, our favorite run training app. Using code HALFMARATHON, you’ll receive 2 weeks of free personalized training and running plans with suggested workouts and paces.
As for creating balance, Nyvapar recommends utilizing strides and fartleks in the base building phase of your training as a way to keep the majority of your training easy, while still getting your legs used to speed workouts.
(Higher Running offers a free aerobic base building training plan, if you’re looking for more detailed information.)
Remember, it’s possible to run faster by simply running slower. Now go out and embrace those easy days.