If you’re like many runners, your training runs consist of you running faster or farther than you did on your previous run. But what about running slower? Why would you want to run slower when you’re trying to get faster? There are a few reasons why you should consider adding slow runs to your training plan, all of which will make you a better and faster runner.
Build a base
We all know that in order to run any amount of distance, you first have to lay a foundation or build a base. Specifically, slow runs help build a metabolic base, making your body more efficient at making and using energy stores.
When you run or do any activity for that matter, your body is powered by three different energy systems, all of which contribute energy to some degree. The first two systems work without the use of oxygen and power your body during quick activities such as jumping or running a 400-meter sprint. The third system, the oxidative system, rely on oxygen to produce energy, and powers activities lasting for longer duration like a three-mile run.
While the first two systems rely primarily on energy stored in your muscles (glycogen) and the breakdown of carbohydrates to fuel your activity, the oxidative system really loves to burn fat. The thing is, when you run at a fast pace, your body doesn’t have the time to break down that fat and instead has to use stored glycogen to power your movement. You’ll eventually deplete your glycogen stores, but most people can go a very long time before they run out of stored fat.
So, how do you tap into this seemingly endless supply of fuel? Train with slow runs. By incorporating one to two slow runs per week, ideally keeping your heart rate between 60 and 70 percent of your max, you’ll train your body to rely on fat for fuel more often. As your body adjusts, it will become more efficient at using fat at higher intensity levels, allowing you to go harder longer.
Develop slow-twitch muscle
Running slower will also train your muscles to do their job more efficiently. Each muscle group in your body is made up of thousands of muscle fibers. While these muscle fibers can further be broken down into several different types, we’ll simplify matters by only discussing the two main types—fast twitch and slow twitch.
Fast-twitch fibers, as their name implies, contract quickly but also fatigue quickly. Slow-twitch fibers, on the other hand, contract slowly and are slow to fatigue. Fast-twitch fibers are the ones you’ll be using to perform a set of squats or run a sprint-distance race. The slow-twitch fibers are the ones you’ll rely on to get you across the finish line of a 5K race.
Long, slow runs give your body a chance to develop these slow-twitch fibers to ensure they don’t fail you when you’re counting on them. Aerobic training not only increases the size of your slow-twitch fibers, but it also increases the number of capillaries surrounding each muscle fiber. What good are more capillaries, you ask? Having more blood vessels around the working muscle fibers allows for greater exchange of oxygen, nutrients, heat, and wastes—giving your muscles and performance a pretty significant boost.
Condition your body
Slow runs are much easier than their faster-paced counterparts, which means you can keep moving for longer. Longer runs are imperative for conditioning your body. Not only do your muscles need conditioning, but the connective tissue that holds you together also needs some attention. Anyone who has ever run a distance race knows how sore your joints can be following the event. Incorporating long slow runs into your program will prepare your connective tissues for the rigors that lie ahead, increasing your chances of finishing the race and decreasing your chances of injury.
Finally, although it may seem counterintuitive, slow runs are an excellent recovery aid after race day or a tough training run. When you wake up feeling tired, sore, and sluggish, rather than kicking up your feet for the day, do yourself a favor and hit the road again. Research has shown that active recovery, as it is called, is superior to the “doing nothing” passive recovery. Active recovery improves circulation, which is necessary to increase oxygen and nutrient delivery and also remove metabolic waste, facilitating muscle recovery. Remember to keep it light—if you’re maintaining a pace slow enough that you can carry on a conversation, your race is adequate to get your blood flowing.