The most common running question I get asked is ‘how do I run faster?’ The answer might be surprising but running slow is the secret for getting fast. In this article we’ll look at why this is the case and how you can start to use running slow to your advantage.
My experience failing at running by running fast.
When I first found passion for running aged 14, I would always run fast. Running fast made me feel like I was putting lots of work in, that I was achieving something, and that I was becoming a better runner. Unfortunately, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Running fast all the time resulted in me always finishing my runs exhausted, sweating buckets and with a general queasy sensation. I even got badly injured on two occasions. Far from being a decent runner.
Despite thinking that I was increasing my running performance and abilities by running fast, what I was actually doing was increasing my risk of injury and not giving my body the chance to properly condition itself.
Running fast isn’t how you get stronger.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Many people believe that by always running at about 75-85% of your total running capacity is the way in which you improve but this isn’t true.
Sure, running fast has it’s time and place. Races and speed workouts fit the bill. However, people can handle this daily abuse on body, and few can last long without injury.
If you run fast all the time, you will be constantly wearing on the body and will turn up to races and training sessions tired and unable to perform at your best.
Running fast all the time feels like you’re in constant battle with yourself when running should be enjoyable.
Don’t focus on running fast, focus on running slower with heart rate zone.
Rather than constantly spending all of your energy in running as fast as you possibly can, you should be focusing on heart rate zones.
Heart rate zones are used by athletes to measure the intensity of training by measuring their current heart rate to their maximum heart rate (the hardest possible effort).
There are five heart rate zones based on how hard you are running. These are:
|Heart Rate Zone||Intensity||Percentage of HR Max|
|Zone 1||Very Light||50%-60%|
Heart rate zones are relative to your maximum heart rate, so everyone’s heart rate zones will be slightly different. For example, a runner who has a maximum heart rate of 190 when going as fast as possible will have a lower zone 2 heart rate than someone with a maximum heart rate of 200.
The reasoning behind running to heart rate zones is that you can control the amount of effort that you’re putting into your run. Dependent on what your maximum heart rate is, you can run in either a very light, light, moderate, hard or maximum fashion, depending on the type of running you’re doing. This is how you ensure you’re running slow in a way that is relevant to your ability.
By measuring your heart rate with a chest ECG monitor and a running watch, you’ll be able to stay on top of your heart rate zone during a training session and ensure that you’re running in a manner that is ‘slow’ to you.
How do you find out your running heart rate zones?
If you don’t know your heart rate, you should do a test to find out. To find out what your heart rate zone is, you can take numerous approaches from paying for a professional test in a sports laboratory to doing the test in a good old fashioned do it yourself manner. One thing is for certain; you’re going to need to get sweaty to find out.
The day prior to the test, make sure that you’ve had enough sleep and that you’ve had a decent bit of pre-workout nutrition. Ideally, you’ll want to be running in flat and dry conditions, on a fair temperature day (not too hot, not too cold).
You will need an accurate heart rate monitor, ideally a chest strap, to record your ECG (electrocardiogram) and a decent sports watch to record these ECG results onto. The watch will also be useful for measuring your pace throughout the test.
The test is what’s called a lactate threshold heartrate test (LTH). This determines the heart rate that you can sustain over a 60-minute period. Don’t worry, you don’t need to run for 60 minutes. The LTH test will take thirty minutes.
Before the test, do a very light workout to get yourself physically and mentally prepared. A light jog and some dynamic stretches for 10-15 minutes should do the trick.
The first 10 minutes of the test will be discarded due to the time lag between the effort being made and heart rate results reflecting your maximum effort as your body adjusts to the demands. However, you still need to make sure that the first 10 minutes of effort are as hard as you can sustain.
Once you’ve completed the first 10 minutes, hit the record button on your chest rate monitor to keep the results clean and as easy as possible to interpret.
Try and maintain the same pace throughout the whole test. As a rule of thumb, try not to deviate 10% from your average pace throughout the test as doing so can render the results unreliable.
You’ll also need to do the test alone without any training partners to avoid running the risk of being competitive. If you run harder and faster than you’d normally do, the test results will be unreliable. Therefore, always be sure to pick a spot where you’ll be solo or at least free from training partners.
Once you’re finished, your watch should be able to produce your average heart rate for the 20 minutes out of the 30 that you recoded it for. This is known as your lactate threshold heart rate.
Once you have this, you can then plug the numbers into a free online heart rate zone calculator.
What zones should you be spending your training time in?
What zone you should be spending your training zone in will depend on what type of run you’re doing.
For easy runs (the type of run you should be doing the most), focus on sticking in zone 2 which is the light 60%-70% of your maximum heart rate. Though this might feel painfully slow to start with, you’ll soon find that you enjoy running at this pace. Easy runs in zone 2 will enable you to stay in control of your run, get some decent mileage in, focus on form, and allow you to better regulate your breathing. Over time, you’ll feel your aerobic capacity building as a runner and your athletic ability will improve significantly.
If you find yourself drifting into zone 3 from zone 2, don’t worry about it and gradually bring yourself back to heart rate zone 2 by slowing the pace down slightly.
When you’re completing a speed workout as part of training, you should focus on being in the hard heart rate zone 4. This will be a challenging enough pace to develop your bodies speed abilities enough so that you’re able to benefit from an intense speed workout.
For races, you should ideally be in zone 4 and zone 5 (maximum). Being in these zones means that you’re pushing your body to its absolute limit which will enable you to perform at your best. Of course, if you feel yourself at risk of doing yourself some damage or injury, do reduce the pace slightly.
Try the heartrate zone challenge.
To test out the idea of running slow with the objective of getting fast, test it out for yourself.
Complete a solo time trial for the 5K distance. A time trail is when you compete against the clock to secure the fastest time possible. In this case, it will be running 5000 meters as fast as possible.
In addition to the time, be sure to record a few things. Record how much sleep you got, the pre-run nutrition you consumed, the time of day you ran and where you ran. These will be important for the same test later to ensure we’re comparing apples with apples as much as possible.
Commit to trying 30 days of running following the ideas in this article. Spend most of your time in heart rate zone 2 for those easy runs and pepper some harder speed workouts in zone 4 into the mix.
At the end of the 30 days, use the information that you recorded on the day of the original 5K time trial and follow these steps again. Complete another time trial and compare the results. I’ll bet that you get a faster time after the 30 days after having followed the heart rate zone training method.