When an individual becomes adapted to a certain distance, or time, in a long run/ride/swim then it’s easy for the competitive person to train those distances at a faster rate. I mean why shouldn’t you? The only way to teach your body to go fast is to train at a faster pace right? Yes, but at the same time…no.
From my coaching, and training, experience one of the big pitfalls that most endurance athletes put themselves in is that they train too much at too fast of a rate. Too much ‘tempo’ effort just to negative split each running mile or to make the average speeds on your GPS watch look acceptable to you is doing much more harm than good. I’m here to tell you that more of your training load should be at more of an easy and relaxed training effort. This is what will make you faster.
What happens to your body when you are training
No matter what your speed is during the training session, some physiological things are always happening:
- Adaptations in the muscles and in the lungs to deliver oxygen to those muscles
- Increase in bone density
- Proliferation of the bodies mitochondria levels (the energy store houses of the cells) as well as increasing in size
- Capillaries (blood vessels) in our extremities (arms and legs) grow and serve the areas more effectively
- Improved conditioning of the lungs to take in oxygen from the atmosphere
Slow = Consistency = Fast
No matter how fast, or slow, an athlete trains all of these benefits are happening. Many individuals fall into the mindset that if they push a little bit harder then these benefits will increase which will result in a faster athlete. This however is not the case.
Besides the benefits mentioned above going slower leads to a key point, and that is consistency. Being able to go out day in and day out to get the training done. Too much high intensity leads to an increase of injury risk, weaker immune system, and possible burnout (lack of motivation). Any one of these can wreck an athletes yearly goals.
Training 7 days a week for 52 weeks a year is not good, but being too fatigued (physically and mentally) to do more than one workout a week in that sport will not lead to improvements. Get rid of the ego, go slower, get out the door a few times a week, and watch your body get more fit over time.
Easy days easy, hard days hard
A great example that has been made public has been of Camille Herron. An American woman who was trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Due to her training she had to deal with 7, yes 7, stress fractures in the span of only a 2.5 year period. No matter how hard she trained she would have to sideline her training for months due to her body breaking down which defeated the harder training in the first place.
So what did she do? She realized she needed to run slower to get faster. Instead of trying to tackle 80-100+ mile weeks where most of the running was close to marathon goal pace, she decided that slower is faster. While training slower she was able to give her body the rest on the easy days while giving herself a stronger body to work with on the harder days.
This helped her create her best ever marathon time (2 hours 37 minutes – a 6:00/mile pace) which gave her an Olympic Trials qualification as well as representing the United States in the Pan-American Games in 2011. How fast did she do most of her running? She usually started them at around 9:00/minute miles and if she felt okay on the day she may go to 8:30′s per mile. Way slower than what many think is an acceptable pace for an elite marathoner. For a person who can run 26.2 miles in 2:37 that is a really slow run, but it gave her the body to perform on race day. (Interview here)
More experienced athletes understand the importance of training harder to race faster. It is common for endurance athletes to setup a day in their week to work on speed (track work, intervals, hill repeats…). These are great to give the body the ability to simulate the stress load of racing. The problem I see with many is that they are unable to give these workouts the attention needed due to the fact that they are too tired. It’s common for more athletes to feel ‘good’ upon starting a hard training session but then too early in the sets the fatigue starts to come back up and are too tired. This is commonly due to the days prior being too high in intensity. Give your body a fighting chance to be able to give these or so important sessions the attention they deserve.
On your easy days just go out and enjoy yourself. If towards the end of the slow day your body feels close to how you felt at the start then you are training effectively. Do the easy days slow and easy so you can do the hard days hard. Both intensities will get you faster.
The talk test
When it comes to trying to gauge what effort your ‘slow’ is then try the talk test. If you are training with a friend observe how both of you are talking with each other. If you are able to give 1-2 sentences to the other person without feeling out of breath then that is a good indicator that you are going at the right pace. If you feel that having a steady conversation with someone would be too difficult then you are probably doing more harm than good.
If you are still unsure then it is probably the right idea to kill the motor a bit and go a bit slower.
How much slow vs fast
Given the vast range abilities, ages, goals, training histories, and distances people are training to race it is hard to put an exact percentage on how much training should be at a slow comfortable pace vs. fast. If the athlete is perhaps new to the idea of training at different intensities then no more than 10% of the training load should be at a high training level. For the more experienced athlete who wishes to push themselves and work on their previous personal best times then a 15-20% range is more than enough. On rare occasions pro and olympic athletes will tip into the 25-30% however I have observed many professional athletes who stick within the 15-20% range and do great.