Running slowly has fitness benefits – but is it possible to be *too* slow?

Running slowly has fitness benefits – but is it possible to be *too* slow?

I don’t know about your Instagram feed, but recently, mine has become packed with coaches recommending that people run slower. Whether it’s advocating for the 80:20 principal (80% of training should be slow and easy, 20% of runs should be hard and fast) or offering reasons why you’re running too fast in general, slower definitely seems to be better for smashing PBs, recovery and general enjoyment. Some coaches caveat that advice with the fact that you can only run very slowly if you also run very fast. Kim Clark, aka Trackbabe, a run coach and influencer, previously told Stylist that most of us get our training wrong because we tend to run slow runs too fast and fast runs too slowly.

Since receiving that advice, I’ve been actively trying to slow down – setting off slower than I think I ‘need’ to. And those runs have felt good, like I could keep on running beyond my end destination. But that’s also made me wonder whether there’s such a thing as running ‘too slowly’.  Isn’t there a possibility that by running below a certain threshold, you won’t be getting the same level of cardio workout as when you push yourself more. Is there a danger, therefore, that we won’t improve? 

“It totally depends on what you’re aiming for and where you’re starting from,” says Rebecca Taylor from SOAR Women. “Slow means different things to different people; one woman’s slow is another woman’s Parkrun PB.” Qualified UKA running coach Fiona English, aka @englishruns, agrees: “If you’re training to run a fast 5k, running lots of mileage very slowly isn’t necessarily beneficial; it could tire you out and reduce the speed you’re able to find in your sessions. But if you were training for a very long endurance race, the majority of your training might be made up with a mix of very slow runs and long hikes. The important thing is that your training is specific to you and what you are training for.” Taylor calls running slowly “one aspect of a varied running diet”, which allows our body and mind to recover from your harder effort days.  

So, what about the health and fitness knock-on that comes from slowing down? Well, Taylor claims that running slower makes your heart stronger, building a bigger running ‘engine’ for endurance, without adding additional stress to muscles and joints. She does, however, acknowledge that if your goal is to run faster (say, you want to beat your 5k PB), then at some point you will need to push harder. “Your body has to adapt to the demands of a quicker pace and you will need to practise it.”

I suspect my main concern it that if I get used to running at a lovely, leisurely pace – chatting away and having the energy to scroll through podcasts and look around me as I run – I might miss out on the benefits that come from pushing more often. But English suggests that speed isn’t the be-all and end-all, when it comes to results.  “The number one key to seeing real change in your running is consistency. If that means you end up running an easy pace three times a week rather than a random mix of no training followed by lots of speed work, I’d always recommend the consistent, easy miles. Consistency is king!” 

And again, if you are concerned about speed, it all comes down to the goal. Taylor says that there are two types of running that affect the body in different ways: Running slowly for longer distances teaches the body to run economically and consistently, she says. “It’s one of the most powerful tools for improvement.” “Speedwork is more taxing on the body, but it increases your fast twitch muscles and will gradually help you to pick up your pace on the quicker days as you develop through training.” Some runners handle and recover from the intensity of speed training better than others (depending on age, experience, life stressors, genetics, etc, while others need more time to build up and recover. But Taylor says that, in her experience, most people “hugely benefit from a solid base of easier endurance”. 

The question is: how can we measure our speed without having to look at watches or becoming dependent on data? No one wants to be obsessing over Strava, especially if they’re purposely trying to slow down (and therefore actively avoiding medals and PBs). “A really good gauge I use when I run is my ability to talk,” says Taylor. “A great running friend and I have a joke that if we can’t sing when we’re doing easy runs, we’re not running easily enough. Singing aside, you should definitely be able to hold a chatty conversation on the easy days. If you have a friend to practise this with then there’s nothing better for mental wellbeing than a gossipy run with mates. “If you’re building faster runs into your training, working at a pace where you can only say a few short sentences will pay the bills come race/fast run day. Meanwhile if you can say more than a couple of words on flat out short interval sessions you’re not trying hard enough.” “I really like to encourage my runners to ‘run to feel’,” explains English. “Test how well you know your paces by trying a progression run: head out for a 30-minute run and aim to increase your pace every five minutes.” She also recommends trying to hold an effort level of 7/10 (1 = asleep, 10 = on the verge of collapse) if you’re looking to increase your speed in say, a half marathon. “Remember, as you get fitter your paces will change so really the key is what the effort feels like. Effort will also vary depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, your stress levels, tiredness, nutrition and weather.” 

It is worth saying that speed runs definitely should play a role in our regimes. Yes, we want to run slowly and easily most of the time, but adding that occasional sprint workout is the key to building on that juicy layer of endurance. While you want to use them more sparingly, Taylor says that those faster runs “significantly help build physical and mental resilience”. It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and pushing your limits – not just for running but life in general. Perhaps Taylor sums it up best: “There’s nothing quite like the realisation that you’re stronger than you thought you were.” 

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