Slow Running: The Surprising Benefits of Slowing Down

In the world of running, the obsession with time and speed is undeniable. Whether you’re an amateur or a professional runner, the goal is always to get faster and improve your race times. However, a new trend has emerged in recent years that challenges this mindset – the concept of “slow running”. Slow running advocates argue that anyone can run, regardless of their ability or pace, and that there are numerous benefits to be gained from taking a slower approach. Research supports these claims, suggesting that slow running may actually be more advantageous than training at higher intensities. This article explores the surprising benefits of slowing down and why it’s worth considering incorporating slow running into your training routine.

The Training Approach of Elite Runners

When we think of elite runners such as Eliud Kipchoge or Kelvin Kiptum, we often assume that they train primarily at record-setting paces. However, it may surprise you to learn that around 80 percent of their training is actually done at what’s known as “zone 2 running” – a pace that raises the heart rate but still allows for conversation. Only about 20 percent of their training is dedicated to higher intensity zones closer to their race pace. This discrepancy in training intensity is a strategic choice made by elite runners to minimize the stress placed on their bodies. As running speed increases, the risk of injury, illness, and infection also rises. By spending more time at lower intensities, elite runners reduce their chances of missing out on training due to health issues.

A fundamental aspect of training is developing a solid “base” – the physiological foundation upon which all training adaptations are built. For endurance runners, this refers to their baseline cardio-respiratory fitness, which serves as a platform for further improvements. Think of it as a pyramid, with a sturdy base enabling the construction of a taller structure. Slow running plays a crucial role in building this base by creating a relatively low physiological stress environment. Although the heart may not be under significant strain during zone 2 running, the amount of oxygenated blood leaving the heart with each beat is close to its maximum. Developing a strong base allows for more efficient oxygen delivery to the working muscles, which is essential for running success.

One of the significant advantages of slow running is its ability to promote fat utilization as an energy source. Unlike relying on carbohydrate stores obtained from food, running at slower paces encourages the body to tap into stored fat for energy. Metabolically, burning fat is a more efficient process, as a single molecule of fat provides more energy compared to a molecule of carbohydrate. Consequently, slow runners use less energy overall, experience less fatigue, and perform better on race day. Research has shown that athletes who spend more time slow running achieve gains in VO2 max (oxygen capacity) and race speed that are approximately 1 percent higher. Moreover, slow runners have been found to experience around five times greater improvements in aerobic base compared to those who prioritize high-intensity runs.

Finding Your Slow Running Pace

If you’re intrigued by the idea of slow running and want to give it a try, determining the appropriate pace is crucial. Physiologically, slow running occurs below the lactate threshold, where lactate (a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism) begins to appear in the blood. A simple guideline for slow running is to maintain a speed at which you can comfortably hold a conversation, with your heart rate around 70 percent of its maximum. If you find it challenging to converse, it’s a sign that you should slow down. An alternative method is the talk test – if you can sing out loud without struggling for breath, you’re likely within the right zone. Conversely, if singing becomes difficult, and your legs start feeling heavy, you’re likely pushing too hard and surpassing the intended intensity for slow running.

Benefits for Body and Mind

Beyond the physical advantages, slow running also offers numerous benefits for mental health. The relaxed pace allows for a greater opportunity to enjoy the surroundings, engage in mindfulness, and experience a sense of peace and calm. Slow running can serve as an escape from the pressures of everyday life and provide a chance to reconnect with oneself. It fosters a more enjoyable and sustainable relationship with running, reducing the likelihood of burnout and promoting a lifelong love for the sport. Even if you’re not an athlete, incorporating more slow running into your routine can still be highly beneficial for overall well-being.

Slow running is a trend that challenges the traditional emphasis on speed and time in running. By incorporating more slow running into your training routine, you can build a stronger physiological base, improve fat utilization as an energy source, and potentially enhance your race performance. Additionally, slow running offers mental health benefits, allowing for a more enjoyable and sustainable running experience. So, if you’ve always been self-conscious about your running pace, consider embracing the concept of slow running and discovering the surprising benefits of slowing down.

Science

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