Running fast is a thrill, but as most runners know, the key to improving your race-day speed is to put in lots of slow, easy miles during training. If you push yourself to the limit on every run, you’ll drastically increase your risk of injury, reduce the number of miles you can run each week, and ultimately, never hit your full potential on race day.
“Run slow to run fast” is a phrase that most runners are probably already familiar with, but it encapsulates this idea perfectly. The common wisdom is that as much as 80% of your weekly mileage should be done at an easy pace, with only a couple of days set aside for more intense workouts.
How slow should you be going?
An “easy” pace is different for each runner but is typically two or more minutes per mile slower than your 5k race pace. There are a few ways to measure your speed to make sure you’re really putting in an easy workout:
- The easiest method is to simply run at a “conversational” pace. This is a pace in which you are moving slowly enough that you could still hold a conversation as you run. (This means speaking in complete sentences, not just individual words and grunts.)
- You can also use an online calculator to determine your ideal easy pace. Many websites host calculators which allow you to enter your best race time in order to get a suggested easy pace.
- Finally, you can use a heart rate monitor to ensure your pulse is staying in a slightly elevated zone. Unfortunately, this is the least accessible option because it requires purchasing a heart rate chest strap or a running watch with a built-in monitor.
Why it’s so hard to run slow
Even after you’ve determined what your easy pace is, it can be surprisingly difficult to stick with it. Although runners know that they should be running most of their miles at a slow pace, many of us continually catch our paces gradually creeping up on every run.
In my own case, I often find myself running about half a minute per mile faster than my easy pace. I’m able to resist going at my all-out race pace, but I still can’t quite run slow enough.
Why is it so hard to run slow? Part of the answer is carelessness. Running fast feels more natural, and we need to stay vigilant to make sure our pace stays low. This can require constantly checking our phone or watch, which is a pain to do.
Another reason we tend to run faster is that it’s more fun. For many of us, the reason we first started running was that we wanted to push ourselves and see what we are capable of. Running fast triggers our endorphins as we push the limits of our fitness.
Most of all though, I think that many of us run fast because we let our ego get in the way. This is certainly true in my case.
I try not to worry about what others think, but I can’t help feeling embarrassed when I run slowly past other runners. I’m constantly catching myself picking up my pace as soon as another runner enters my view, and it normally takes me at least a minute before I finally slow back down. When I’m on a busy running path, this can end up causing me to run fast nearly the entire way.
And it’s not just about other runners. My ego gets in the way even when I’m completely by myself. Like many runners, I track nearly every run I do through Strava. Knowing that the data will be saved online makes me want to run faster, even when I know it’s a bad idea. In its “segments” feature, Strava breaks down your personal records for individual small sections of each run. I somehow can’t help but try to beat my previous PRs every time I know I’m going through a segment.
Getting over your ego
I was talking with a friend about my trouble with running slowly, and he suggested that I was looking at things backward: if I was serious about improving my running speed, I shouldn’t be ashamed of my slow runs, I should be taking pride in them. It was a simple, straightforward point, but it really shifted how I think about running.
My friend was absolutely right that slow runs should be a source of pride. It can be hard to run slow, but it’s an essential skill for developing as a runner. When I see a slow pace in Strava, I shouldn’t think of it as somehow coming up short; it’s actually me running at my best. Each time I complete a slow run at my true easy pace, I’ve completed another successful day in my overall training program.
For the same reason, it also doesn’t make sense to feel embarrassed to go slowly in front of other runners. Nearly all runners know that easy days are an essential part of running. When they see you going slowly, they know better than to assume that you can’t run any faster. You should feel proud when you resist the urge to speed up near other runners, because you’re demonstrating that you’ve mastered one of the most important skills in running: keeping a slow, steady pace on your easy days.
I still catch myself slipping at times, but now I do my best to always run at a true easy pace on my slow days. I can hold my head high with confidence, knowing that these slow days are every bit as much an achievement as the fast ones.