6 Awesome Benefits of Slow Running

Experts explain what slow running really means and the mental and physical perks of pumping the brakes.

why slow running is good for you it helps you run faster
Lakota Gambill

For many runners, embracing the concept of slow and easy runs is a game of mental gymnastics. Can you really become a better, faster runner if you’re consistently going at a pace that feels easy and relatively slow to you?

“It can be very hard, especially for new runners, to really understand that anything positive is happening when a run feels really easy,” South Carolina-based exercise physiologist Heather Hart, C.S.C.S., certified run coach and founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching explains to Runner’s World.

That’s to a runner’s detriment, because there are tons of awesome benefits of slow running any athlete can reap from regularly training at an easy pace.

To convince you to pump the brakes, we tapped two experts to learn all there is to gain—both physically and mentally—from slowing down.

What “Slow Running” Really Means

Before we dig into its perks, let’s get clear on what constitutes “slow running.” Basically, it’s any run in which your heart rate is at or below about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, Hart explains. This is typically considered zone 1 or zone 2 training.

You don’t have to track your heart rate to know if your run meets the criteria for “easy,” though. A simpler method is to tune into your own sense of what feels “easy” and what feels “hard” using the rate of perceived exertion scale (RPE). Imagine a scale of 0 to 10 where zero is no exertion at all and 10 is all-out work—an easy run should fall between a 4 and a 6, says Hart.

Another way to monitor whether you’re striding easy enough: Try holding a conversation. If you’re able to chat without gasping, then you’re likely nailing slow running, Hart says.

“My rule of thumb is that if an athlete [questions] am I running too fast?, then they probably are,” Hart explains. In fact, slow running is probably slower than you think.

6 Slow Running Benefits

Here are all the amazing things—in no particular order—that can happen when you embrace a slow pace.

1. Higher Lactate Threshold

It’s logical to think the only way to get better at running fast is to, well, run fast. But dedicating time to slow running can actually provide a physiological benefit that improves your ability to pick up the pace.

Here’s why: Slow running increases the density of your mitochondria, the little organelles in cells that help metabolize lactate, a byproduct of glycolysis or the process of turning food into fuel for exercise.

There’s an association between the onset of fatigue while exercising and elevated levels of circulating lactate, Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and coach with Running Strong in Atlanta tells Runner’s World. “That’s known as the lactate threshold,” she says. “You get more lactate production than you have consumption.”

Boosting your mitochondrial density with slow running means you can increase your lactate threshold even during hard efforts, Hart explains. Instead of hitting your lactate threshold (and thus fatiguing out) at, say, a 5:37 -minute kilometre pace, you may be able to push, say, an 5-minute kilometre pace. In other words, “you can run faster,” without running out of gas as quickly, Hamilton explains.

2. Reduce Your Chances of Hitting a Wall

While runners rely on fast-twitch muscle fibers for speed work, there’s a subtype of fast-twitch fibers that are somewhat convertible—they can utilize fuel aerobically as well as anaerobically. That means you can strengthen them through high-intensity efforts or by doing long, slow aerobic runs, Hamilton explains.

During a long, slow run, when the slow-twitch fibers start to tire, your body recruits some of the convertible fast-twitch fibers to help out. Do this enough and you are training these fibers to pitch in more reliably. This can help you run longer without getting as fatigued.

Mitochondria also plays a role here, because aside from gobbling up lactate, it metabolizes fat. When running, your body primarily relies on glycogen (the stored form of glucose or sugar) in your muscles for fuel. Because you only have a limited supply of glycogen, that plan works well until it doesn’t. Any runner who has bonked during a distance race knows how awful this crash can feel.

As a backup, though, your body has an almost unlimited supply of intramuscular triglyceride, also known as fat. Training your muscles to more efficiently burn fat for fuel, as you do with long, easy runs, will decrease the likelihood of hitting the wall, Hamilton explains.

3. Happier Running

Though there are some folks who genuinely love running all out, for a lot of athletes, “speed work is hard,” says Hamilton. Not only can fast running be uncomfortable and demand a lot of focus, it can physically stress your body, she explains. And surprise, surprise: Physical stress can impact your mental health, too, says Hart.

Easy running, by contrast, “is a nice way to let running be a stress reliever instead of a stress producer,” Hamilton says. Indeed, Hart finds that low-intensity workouts provide a chill space where you can simply enjoy running for what it is without worrying about hitting certain paces. “You can stop and smell the roses,” she says.

And if you’re a beginner still trying to build a consistent run routine, finding this type of joy in the activity can make you more likely to stick with it. Case-in-point: A 2015 study involving 41 people concluded that experiencing more positive feelings during a training session improved participants’ adherence to their exercise program.

4. Improved Recovery

Running hard all the time can result in cumulative fatigue, which ultimately affects performance in all your workouts, Hart explains. So regularly slotting slow runs into your schedule can help facilitate recovery and conserve energy so that when it is time for a speed workout, you’re able to run at a high level and hit your target paces. As Hart puts it: “It’s super important to keep those easy days easy so that the hard days can be hard.”

Along those lines, a lot of people don’t realize the adaptations we make from intense training occur during the recovery period following a workout—and not during workouts themselves, Hart explains. By taking it easy after hard and fast runs, you will reap the full gains of those workouts.

5. Decreased Risk of Injury

Fast running places more strain on your feet and lower legs than easy running, and research suggests a link between logging speedy paces—especially when you’re not ready for speed—and potentially higher risk of certain injuries, like plantar fasciitisAchilles tendinitis, and calf strains. Embracing slow running allows you to increase the percentage of your total weekly mileage while minimizing the amount of stress you’re placing on your body and reducing your overall injury risk, Hart explains.

Ultimately, this can translate to better performance. As Hamilton puts it: “The only way to get faster in your races is to train well, and the only way to train well is to stay healthy.”

6. Stronger Mind-Body Connection

Routinely alternating between hard and easy runs will encourage you to tune into your body and its relationship with different exertion levels. And this mindfulness can benefit you in a race scenario, Hart says.

It will give you an understanding of how hard you’re working at a given pace and whether or not you should pick up, slow down, or maintain the pace, she explains. Instead of blindly following a pacing plan that may or may not be right for you on a given day, you’ll be able to adapt in real-time to how your body is actually feeling, thus becoming a more strategic competitor.

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