What Does Run Slow to Speed Up Really Mean? The Benefits of Easy Running

Whether you’re new to running or are a well-seasoned racer, you’ve probably done it. You’ve started getting more miles under your feet and begin noticing an improvement in your times – paces that once felt like a tremendous effort start feeling more manageable, and you quickly pick up speed as weeks pass. However, this style of training – linearly progressing your speed and running to the best of your ability for each run as opposed to intentionally adding in easy runs – could actually be setting back your progress. 

It may sound counterproductive – the idea of running slower to get faster. The benefits of easy running as part of a training plan is often overlooked in favor of running faster or pushing the pace. Running slower can be one of the most challenging parts of an athlete’s training because it requires conscious effort to keep both pace and effort under control, but it can make a huge difference on long term, continued running performance. 

What is Easy Running? Background on the benefits of slow running and the physiologic impact on the aerobic system: 

Running slowly, with reduced effort, is helpful to build aerobic capacity through increasing the development of capillaries, mitochondria, and aerobic enzymes in your muscles. This means that your blood vessels are working more efficiently, which will promote your ability to utilize oxygen efficiently for improved endurance. This boost to your aerobic system means that you’ll be able to progress your mileage with less work required by your aerobic system while operating in a steady state. This works to prevent a plateau effect, which typically happens when athletes linearly progress their mileage. 

Recovery and Injury Prevention: 

Easy running benefits your body by allowing it to catch up to the demand placed on your tissues from higher intensity training sessions or increases in mileage, which typically have latency periods until effects are felt. This can allow your body to still consistently participate in a training plan while minimizing the risk of overuse injuries associated with pushing beyond your current tissue capacities to build resiliency and speed. Easy runs ultimately can provide opportunities for lower stress to be placed on muscles, tendons, and bones while accumulating mileage because they produce less to no micro-traumas in tissue (typically seen after higher intensity training sessions/runs) which would require longer periods of rest to repair. Further, facilitation of blood flow to muscles via active recovery can assist with flushing out of  metabolic waste products allowing speedier recovery periods and reduced intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness. 

Great, this is awesome and I see the benefits. But how does slow running fit into my training program? How can I even measure this? 

Suggestions for implementation: 

  • HR zones: Heart rate zones are based on percentages of your maximum heart rate. These zones are effort zones, meaning they measure how much hard you’re working during activity based on how your heart rate is responding. There are 5 zones
    • Zone 150-65% of Heart Rate Max (HRM). Typically thought of as a recovery zone. 
    • Zone 265-80% of HRM. Commonly referred to as the aerobic/endurance zone. Conversational pace zone. 
    • Zone 380-85% of HRM. Tempo/threshold zone, more moderate – tempo effort. 
    • Zone 485-92% HRM. Lactate threshold zone, workout pace. 
    • Zone 592-100% HRM. Anaerobic zone. Maximum effort/VO2 max. 
    • Aerobic training/easy running occurs in Zone 2. Training with this method can be extremely helpful for holding runners accountable if they’re likely to push themselves too hard using another method (such as RPE outlined below). Using heart rate zones can be useful for measuring fitness over time too by having objective data for the body’s response at different speeds. Data driven runners who want to track progress and variability throughout their training blocks tend to be drawn to this method. Potential limitations of heart rate training, however, include potential technological limitations of fitness wearable accuracy, especially wrist monitors, however this technology has improved significantly in recent years. 
  • Rate of Perceived Exertion: Rate of perceived exertion, also referred to as RPE, is your rating and perception of how hard you’re working during an activity. RPE is commonly rated using a 0-10 scale with 0 representing no effort and 10 as maximal effort. Sensations utilized to measure RPE may include labor of breathing, subjective perception of heart rate, and muscle work/fatigue. Typically, easy runs should be conducted at a pace where holding a conversation takes little effort and feels comfortable. RPE can be a useful method for mitigating the drawbacks of wrist heart rate monitors and to adapt runs on the fly depending on how the athlete feels in the moment. Potential limitations for RPE, however, include inaccurate ratings and athletes continuing to push themselves beyond the efforts which they should be conducting their easy runs at. 
  • Running without tracking: Closely related to RPE, running without tracking can be another method to force yourself to slow down, as many find that the data collected from fitness wearables creates a mental block for slowing down. Running without tracking can allow athletes to truly guide by RPE instead of guidelines of where they feel they “should” be running that day – and can allow for an opportunity to stretch the easy running pace zone to accommodate for transient changes in fitness including sleep, nutrition, and stress. 
  • Pace zones: Pace zones are typically calculated based off of either a recent race or a goal race time, and will create zones based on pacing for races, threshold/tempo, intervals, easy, and recovery runs. Pace zones can be a useful tool for structuring a training plan, but their drawbacks include the potential for being too rigid of a structure which doesn’t adequately accommodate transient changes to fitness. 

So I should only run slow? 

Long story short, no. If you’re base building in preparation for a training block, or taking a step back from a structured training plan while rehabilitating for mental or personal health reasons, or while rehabilitating from injury – easy running is going to be the best, most efficient, and overall most beneficial way to rebuild your cardiovascular fitness with less risk for exacerbation of any aches and pains. However, that being said, once in a training plan with a performance goal in mind– running slowly should then be used to supplement harder efforts including speed sessions and long runs. 

Curious about how to implement easy running into your training? All of our Doctors of Physical Therapy are certified RRCA Running Coaches. Contact us at (917) 494-4284 or via our website to learn more about our run coaching services, and even to schedule a free discovery call with one of our staff to see if we’re the right fit for your needs. 

Written by Madison Doherty PT, DPT

Works Cited: 

Psychology, Department of. “Psychophysical Bases of Perceived Exertion : Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.” LWW, journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/abstract/1982/05000/psychophysical_bases_of_perceived_exertion.12.aspx. Accessed 5 Apr. 2024. 

S;, Seiler. “What Is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes?” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20861519/. Accessed 5 Apr. 2024. 

The Runner Physio. “The Benefits of Easy Running and How to Master It.” The Runner Physio, therunnerphysio.com/f/recovery-runs-%E2%80%93-why-they-benefit-runners-and-how-to-master-them. Accessed 5 Apr. 2024. 

 

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