Slow Down to Go Faster
Hi everyone! Dr. Matt here. Some of you may have heard I am back in town earlier than expected. Long story short, I had a strange accident during TACP prep (basically a selection week) and I injured my knee. The injury wash back on top of the additional training pipeline extensions made it unrealistic for me to continue training and still maintain a civilian life and career. I am in the National Guard after all. We do have civilian lives as well.
Anyways, no need for condolences or well wishing, it actually worked itself out very well. More on that later. This article isn't about the injury, it's about the positive consequences of what happens when people (ie. me) listen to their coaches.
I have been running recreationally for nearly 15 years now. When I enlisted in the Army 5 years ago, I began running for training purposes and started taking it much more serious, and rekindled a love for running. I'm generally 205-210 pounds at 5'10 so needless to say I don't have the genetically gifted runner's build, but I do the best I can with what I have.
For much of my early running career, I made the same mistake that I see far too many novice and recreational runners make, and that is attacking every mile in their training with high levels of intensity. For the past year, while I was training for TACP I finally took a step back and listened to coaches and other runners and slowed myself way down to improve the efficiency of my training. What were the results? I'll share that at the end.
First, understand that this is not a new concept. People like author Matt Fitzgerald, Dr. Phil Maffetone, Hal Higdon, Arthur Lydiard, and Jack Daniels have been espousing this for generations. Matt Fitzgerald popularized the 80/20 program which advocates for performing 80% of your training miles at a lower intensity and 20 percent at higher intensities. Dr. Phil Maffetone advocates for most training to be done at a specified heart rate found by subtracting your age from 180 (this is similar to what I followed, and at first seems DEVASTATINGLY SLOW). Dr. Jack Daniels has a far more scientific approach to calculating training pace, but it largely follows the same methodology. Last but not least is one of the most popular running authors, Hal Higdon. Anyone who has ever followed a Hal Higdon program knows that the majority of his long runs are done at what he calls a comfortable pace where you can easily carry on a conversation.
While none of these are new concepts, I have found that most runners (including myself at one time) never follow the prescribed intensities. Why is that? Because we have been taught to "feel the burn." A popular theme in exercise these days is that high intensity wins the day. If a workout doesn't leave people in a sweaty ball of muscle cramps laying on the ground participants consider it a failure. As I have grown up and continued my strength and conditioning education, I have realized how wrong this mindset is.
Why go slow? It's simple. If you enjoy running and endurance events you have to develop the aerobic system without accumulating too much fatigue. You aerobic system is what drives most of your energy production for events that last longer than the first couple minutes. Going slower allows you to maximize that energy pathway while avoiding getting into a more glycolytic pathway that will leave you full of lactic acid and sore muscles. Your aerobic system not only provides much of the energy for longer events, it is what allows you to recover between training sessions, and run stronger for longer. In the past, when I was training at higher intensities and hitting a lot of intervals, I was able to maintain a fast pace for about a mile but then I would have to slow down due to accumulated fatigue. Now I am able to maintain roughly the same speed for distances up to 5K and am able to hold better paces at lower heart rates at the longer distances.
How did my previous year of slow training affect me? Well, once I got used to slowing myself down (and even stopping to walk to lower my heart rate, at the expense of pace) I actually enjoyed training a lot more, was hurt a lot less, and recovered far better in between workouts. I eliminated a lot of the junk mileage which I had put in before. There is some debate as to what leads to over training more; volume or intensity. I believe that comes down largely to the individual, but I do feel confident in making the generalization that a lot of volume combined with high intensity can be a recipe for disaster for MOST people.
Leading into the selection week we were treated to a 2 week buildup of workouts designed to mimic the rigors we would face in the coming training. We did a great deal of running and rucking. 2 examples of this were the day we ran a fast 3 miles (I ran 19:57) and followed that immediately with a 4 mile ruck carrying 45 pounds (i went under 50 minutes). The following day we tested a 1.5 mile run (9:27) and followed that with 8x400 meters with 1 minute rest (I ran sub 1:30 on all repetitions). Prior to having focused on training for aerobic capacity, I wouldn't have been able to maintain those paces on top of the additional workload. Unfortunately, like I mentioned before, a weird accident involving high repetition calisthenics in the mud caused me to hurt my knee and prevented me from finishing the training.
To conclude, many novice and recreational runners follow a wide assortment of training programs to determine running mileage, but very few follow the prescribed intensities. It's important to understand the purpose and methodology of the training program and to run slower than you would think necessary when called for. Understand the importance of periodization (in season vs off season would be a good starting point) and don't sabotage your miles by constantly red lining.