If you want to become a faster runner, you should try to run faster—right?
Wrong, as it turns out: Coaches generally suggest that around 80 percent of your training be at an easy, conversational pace—advice that can be surprisingly hard to follow as runners too often slip into working in the gray zone, meaning running at a pace that is too fast to let their bodies recover but too slow to actually build speed.
But as simple as slowing down sounds, everything from your running mechanics to your Strava kudos are likely encouraging you to pick up the pace. Plus, it’s only natural to worry that slowing down will make you a slower runner (even though the opposite is far more likely).
The benefits of slow running
Seattle-based professional runner and running coach Kaitlin Goodman remembers when she began training with Kim Smith (a three-time Olympian who holds no less than 14 New Zealand records): “She would kick my butt on the track,” says Goodman, “but she was straight-up jogging on the easy days.” When Goodman started slowing down with Smith, “lo and behold, I was seeing gains in my track workouts and subsequently in my races and times.”
Allowing your body time to recover so you can run faster on runs that are meant to be fast is just one of the many purposes of slow runs. “A lot of the benefits that are going to make you a good runner are achieved through lower intensity running,” says Kaitlin Baird, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. She suggests thinking of running fast and running slow as different gears, each of which require your body to produce energy in a different way. If you only ever run fast, “you’re mostly going to be training adaptations associated with the high gear,” even though those low-gear adaptations are essential for distances from 5Ks to marathons.
Running in your low gear, or in your heart rate zones one and two, “is going to help you build resilience in your tissues on the biomechanical level,” says Baird, “and help your body learn how to metabolize fat, and work in the aerobic training zone, which helps build out your cardiovascular system.”
Easy running can also improve lactate clearance and fatty acid oxidation, increase mitochondrial density (which provides energy for sustained efforts), boost capillary density (which improves oxygen delivery to the muscles), and “train the muscle fiber types that are there to sustain longer, lower-intensity bouts of work,” says Baird.
And without layering in those slow runs, says Baird, we run the risk of overtraining and getting injured. While running fast all the time may result in temporary gains, she says, it will likely eventually lead to decreased performance.
There are mental benefits to slowing down, too, says Goodman. “It’s not just the physical recovery, but also letting your mind go,” she says. “That’s harder to do if you’re doing mile repeats—that requires an intense amount of focus.” And though pushing to keep up with a faster running buddy can make speed days more bearable, easy running can facilitate a truly social experience, whether that’s catching up with a friend, pushing a stroller, or bringing the dog.
Plus, Goodman points out, faster runs can feel high-stakes when you have specific goals, and “we don’t have the bandwidth to do that seven days a week,” she says. “If I was anxious about every run, I would very quickly get burned out.”
Why slowing down can feel so hard
Even if you know you should slow down, actually doing it can prove surprisingly tough, both mentally and physically. For one, running slowly can feel counterintuitive when runners are generally told to maintain a quick foot cadence. It’s inevitable that your easy run is going to be less efficient than your sprint, says Goodman, “but you can’t run mile pace for miles and miles—you can run it for a mile,” she says. She suggests being cognizant of not getting sloppy or shuffling your feet—perhaps with a form check-in every mile—and maintaining a relatively high cadence (though not as high as a workout run) while taking smaller steps.
There’s also the “no pain, no gain” mentality that permeates our fitness culture, which can make it feel like a workout that isn’t hard isn’t worth it. That many runners use Strava and other apps to track and share their runs doesn’t help, as slow runs might feel embarrassing to post publicly and will bring down stats like overall average pace.
“You can get into the competitive trap and the comparison game,” says Goodman. “But maybe more of us should be celebrating those easier days on Strava. It takes courage to slow down.”
How slow is slow enough?
In general, easy runs should be in heart rate zones one or two, which you can track with most running watches. But watches can be finicky, and everyone’s zones differ, so Baird recommends doing a heart rate zone test, or relying on other indicators, like whether you can sing a song while you run. Baird also says that if runs that are supposed to be easy are making you feel tired and sore, or are taking days to recover from, that’s a sign that you’re going too fast.
Tips for actually slowing down
Ditch the watch and/or Strava. If you’re constantly tempted to check your splits, you’ll likely also be tempted to run faster than you should. On easy runs, Goodman leaves her watch at home, or sets it to only show her heart rate.
Hit the trails. “I like to have my folks who I coach go out on the trails on easy days,” says Goodman. “They’re going to force you to go easier because they’re more technical. You can get greedy hammering on a nice, flat bike path.”
Run with a (slower) friend. Matching the pace of a buddy who generally runs slower than you can hold you accountable—plus, you’ll want to go slow enough to be able to chat with them.
Try the treadmill. On a treadmill, you can lock in a slow pace and not worry about whether you’re mindlessly speeding up.
Run for time rather than mileage: If you find yourself pushing the pace on easy runs to get them over with faster, set yourself a time goal rather than a mileage goal. That way, you’ll be running for the same amount of time no matter how fast you go.
Advocate for yourself. Goodman says many runners end up going too fast on their easy runs because they’re afraid to ask a friend to slow down, or they don’t want to get left behind. “More often than not, most good running friends will be happy to slow down with you,” says Goodman. And if you find yourself in the back of the pack of a group run and struggling to keep up, “you don’t have to stick with the group the whole time,” she says. “It’s okay to pull back and run the effort that’s right for you.”
Run-walk, or just walk. If you can’t seem to run slowly enough to get your heart rate down, Goodman suggests trying the run-walk method until you build more aerobic capacity. Baird says that walking up hills or using the elliptical are also good options on recovery days if you struggle to stay in the right zone. With consistency, you should be able to speed up while working at the same intensity, she says.
Change your mindset. Rather than thinking about slowing down, Baird suggests thinking about your training as a whole, and the purpose of each individual run. Remind yourself that the slower you can go on your easy runs, the faster you may be able to run on your workouts. “The proof is in the pudding,” says Goodman. “If you are able to commit to taking those easy days easier, you’re going to see those gains on the days that we really care about.”