You might think that trying your best every time you head out for a run can only be a good thing… but you’d be wrong. Running the majority of your runs slower may actually make you faster in the end.
How often do you worry that you’re running too slowly? When it comes to feeling self-conscious on the road, track or treadmill, many of us are preoccupied with timings and perceived speed. We want to run fast and easy, when in reality, every step feels like a huge effort.
But you know what’s probably holding most runners back from getting new PBs or enjoying their runs? Running too fast. Yep, getting caught up with arbitrary time goals may have led many of us to consistently push ourselves too hard. If you want to go faster, you’ve got to get slower.
80% of runners run at 80% intensity, 80% of the time
Physical therapist Dr Victoria Sekely is a run coach who has been talking about the need to slow down on Instagram. She claims that the benefits of slowing down can be huge, including improved recovery times, decreased risk of injury and actually speeding up on scheduled fast runs. In a recent post, she quoted PT Chris Johnson who said: “80% of runners run at 80% intensity, 80% of the time. And that’s why 80% of runners get injured.”
Half of all runners get injured
That’s a neat quote that has some basis in recent data. New research by researchers at Gothenburg University found that almost half of the recreational runners studied got injured over the course of a year, with the most common issues involving the knee (which accounted for 27% of all injuries) and the Achilles tendon/calf area (25% of injuries). They also found that if you’ve had an injury before, you’re almost twice as likely to sustain a running-related injury again compared to a runner with no previous injury.
While the study concludes by saying that there’s not enough evidence to work out why that may be, I’ve been warned by physios before that runners like me who have sprained the same ankle again and again are destined to repeat the offending misstep in the future. Whether that’s because the muscle gets weaker in that specific spot, or the fact that we never quite manage to recover fully before our next training cycle, the point is that injury begets injury.
Why do so many of us run so hard?
Dr Sekely tells Stylist that ego may play a part: “A lot of runners think that if they don’t run hard, then they haven’t done anything – that run wasn’t effective. What’s the point in running easy, in doing something that doesn’t feel hard?”
That’s relatable for many of us who are used to pushing through pain, and who tend to be drawn towards more intense sorts of exercises.
Running fast may feel good but it won’t do your body many favours
We know, for example, that HIIT and fast running can feel good. According to Walter Herzog, the co-editor in chief of the Journal of Sport and Health Science, HIIT allows you to run fast.
As well as reducing the risk of injuries in runners and offering ‘beneficial adaptations’ in runners of all ages, he suggests that the main benefit of running fast… is running fast: “It is a privilege to run fast and be born a fast runner, and I believe that there is a psychological effect of running fast, doing something at high intensity, and fully exhausting your body.” He concludes that running fast makes us feel good, “providing much more than physiological adaptations and improved performance.”
But the British Medical Journal warned back in 2012 that running too far, too fast and too long can actually harm our hearts.
And while we’re not suggesting that running every run ‘hard’ is going to damage your heart, there are some definite reasons to slow down. If you want to run well, slowing down on the easy runs will help you to recover from harder sessions better.
‘Easy’ doesn’t mean ‘lazy’
“One of the main benefits of easy running is being able to add variety into your running schedule,” Dr Sekely says. “You will have easy runs and you’ll have hard runs; running every run easy might have a place in rehab but if you’re training for something, it’s going to really hard to run those faster runs hard if you’re not running those easy runs easy!”
Simply put, Dr Sekely warns that you can’t reach your full potential if you’re running hard every day. “The easy runs serve as miles under our legs, time on our feet which is great, but you can get a lot faster by slowing down so you can tap into that speed and potential on those scheduled hard runs.”
So, what does an ‘easy’ run actually mean? As with everything in running, it’s all about your perceived energy exertion – what feels easy to you. Your easy run might be someone else’s flat out race pace. You want to be working up to 4/10 of your maximum exertion; if you run 1km in five minutes, your easy run pace should see you covering 1km in six or seven minutes. It’s slow but that doesn’t mean it’s boring or not worth doing.
Running that much slower means that you’ve got a chance to correct your form – something we don’t have the brain power to do when we’re going at full pelt. You can retract your shoulders, pick your feet up, shorten your stride, enjoy the scenes around you, breathe easier.
Dr Sekely says the 80/20 rule applies to easy/hard runs: 80% of your weekly mileage should be easy and just 20% should be at a harder effort.
She recommends having a plan or schedule to hand, into which you timetable your easy and hard runs. “If you see your easy run as a way to improve your speed by slowing down first in order to speed up on those harder run days, it’s easier to stick that plan. You’ll see that tomorrow is your easy run so you need to take it easy because the day after, you’ve got a speed run scheduled when you can go really hard and reach your goals.”
On your slower days, why not try a mobility workout to keep your joints and muscles happy? Have a go at one of SWTC trainer Emma’s 15-minute stretch session.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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