ake a look at almost any photo of me racing and you will see one thing: Pain! I don’t take the best of photos anyway, but every shot I’ve ever seen of me running suggests I am going through a world of pain as I strive towards the finishing line. And secretly I’m quite proud of this. It means I’m willing to push myself hard to get to where I want to be.
But there’s a time and a place for pushing hard. And while race day is definitely the time and place for putting it all on the line, often training is not. Yet all too many athletes (in any sport, not just triathlon) have a mindset that turns every training session into a race or a challenge to ‘prove something’ to themselves (or maybe those around them). I should know, I was one of them, and can still fall into this trap if my discipline waivers.
But these same guys and girls I see on Twitter or Facebook talking about ‘smashing’ session after session are often the very same people who a month or three later are complaining about not improving on their PBs (Personal Bests) and appearing mystified why they are not seeing the improvements they think they have earned.
Well the lesson is simple. Train hard and fast all the time and you WILL fail on race day!
I’m no coach or sports physicist, but I know roughly enough to say that to get better at endurance sports (such as running, cycling, swimming, whatever) you need to focus on a mix of four things: Endurance (the ability to go long, sometimes referred to as ‘base fitness’), Stamina (the ability to hard for a sustained period of time), Speed (the ability to go fast) and… Recovery (the ability to heal and adapt).
It’s the balancing act between these four requirements that determines whether or not you make continued improvements in your chosen sport. Missing out any one component will compromise your training and lead to sub-optimal results.
Let’s look at a real-world example: Two 5km runners I know (in fact, one is me). Runner #1 is a solid 18:45 runner; runner #2 can do about a 19:50. Runner #1 has a training philosophy of 3-4 runs a week: two tempo 10km runs at about 75% effort and two shorter 5km ‘all out’ runs. Runner #2 has a program that looks more like two easy 10km runs of about 65%, one intervals run of about 10km mixing 1km hard, 1km easy, one tempo run of about 75% and one sprints (up to 600m) session at the track. After six months they meet and run a 5km parkrun. Runner #1 does 18:53, not far off his PB. Runner #2 does 18:54, losing out to Runner #1 but setting a mega new PB by almost a minute.
Who has the more effective training program? Well, Runner #1 is still faster overall, but look at how Runner #2 has closed the gap! Why is this? And more importantly, was I runner #1 or #2?!
I’m sure others are more qualified to give a scientific answer, but in my simple world the answer lies in the training program. Look how Runner #2 has a) more variation in their training, b) less time running at 75% or above and c) more low-intensity efforts to recover.
And that’s really the point of this article. You need to SLOW DOWN sometimes if you want to get faster. There are numerous reasons why slow runs need to be part of your program:
Slow runs train your aerobic system – running fast is an anaerobic activity, so logic might dictate you should focus on training just the anaerobic system. The truth, however, seems to go against this and suggest that time spent training the aerobic system is rarely wasted in anaerobic races.
Slow runs give your muscles a chance to recover – in some ways strenuous exercise is bad for us! It tears muscles fibres, essentially damaging us. But the body is a wonderful thing and recovery / low-intensity sessions give the body a chance to repair the damage done in harder sessions, building stronger muscles. Repeated time and time again, it is this repairing process that actually makes us stronger. But if you don’t give the body a chance to repair, going hard all the time can become counter-productive!
Slow runs often give us confidence – got a 10km or a half-marathon coming up but worried about making the distance? Over-distance runs at low intensity can be a great way to prove to ourselves we can do it; giving us confidence to go harder on race day.
Slow runs can be good for improving technique – whether it’s controlling your breathing, foot placement, arm movement or hip tilt, slow running gives you a chance to really think about technique, and that will also pay dividends on race day.
So how slow is slow? Let’s take me as an example. I have a half-marathon coming up in February, ahead of the triathlon season. Having narrowly missed the 90-minute mark at the same race last year, I have my sights firmly on an 88-89 minute finish time. That means I need to run the 21km (13.1 miles) with an average pace of around 4:13 minutes per kilometre (6:48 per mile).
Now, consulting the McMillan running pace calculator, I can see that my recovery runs should be no faster than 5:24/km. What?! I don’t think I’m capable of running that slow?!
But it’s no joke. When you’re looking at paces of 3:59 to 4:09 in your interval runs, you need to be able to recover fully. That’s why you often hear coaches talking about "putting the ego away" when heading out on a training run. Forget anyone else around you; forget the guy ahead that your subconscious is urging you to catch and overtake; forget the chick who just breezed past you. May be he’s doing a tempo run; maybe she’s mid-way through a speed interval. Who knows? Who cares?! If your program says it’s a slow run day, then that’s what you NEED to do!
Want to know what your training speeds should be? Try using the McMillan calculator, you can enter either your target race time or a recent benchmark time and it will help you with times for long runs, recovery runs, tempo runs and intervals.
And if you need help scheduling your sessions, then you need a coach! Personally, I’ve worked with Mark Shepherd and since November 2010 we’ve improved my 5km time from 20:24 to 18:51. I’m not ‘fast’ yet; but I’m getting ‘faster’! A good coach will help you find the balance between the four types of training session I outlined above, making sure you get the opportunity to both push yourself to new heights of pain as well as resting and recovering.
So take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. Yes, you need to train hard sometimes, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that every session needs to be a lactic-building, eye-popping lung-buster! Slow runs (or cycles, or swims!) have a legitimate place in your training regime. If it works for elite athletes, it will work for you too.
Train hard; but above all, train smart!