Fitness and Lifestyle

Run Slow to Get Fast: The Power of the Long Slow Distance Run


If you want to get quicker at running, you've just got to out and run faster more often - right? Not exactly. It can be hard to get your head around the idea of deliberately running easy. It's something I definitely struggled with initially - how could running slowly make me quicker? But when I got it, I got it. I took almost 3 minutes off my 5k PB this summer during IM 70.3 training without actually meaning to and that's hugely down to the improvement in my running that I got from my long, slow runs.

Hard, fast sessions definitely have a place in your training programme. They're great for turbo charging your fitness and building up that valuable mental toughness that you'll need to be able to dig deep come race day. But these tough sessions place a large amount of stress on your body and an over emphasis on high intensity training over a sustained amount of time can lead to injury, burnout and a loss of performance. Running fast and hard all the time isn't going to work long term to get you quicker, because it's just not sustainable. Enter the long slow distance run. The general school of thought at the moment, and a method that is put into practice by some of the best elites, is to perform 80% of your training at a low intensity with the remaining 20% formed of moderate and high intensity sessions - the icing on top of your running cake.

Running long and slow allows you to build strength, endurance and efficiency without over stressing your body. It builds a strong foundation from which the higher intensity work can be performed more effectively. Slower running strengthens the key muscles and through the increased blood flow (thanks to more capillaries being formed as the body adapts) these muscles improve their ability to utilise oxygen. The muscles get better at using energy and more efficient at removing waste products (i.e. lactic acid) boosting endurance. A good level of strength and endurance means you can run faster, for longer before the fatigue kicks in. The physiological benefits don't stop there. Running at an easy pace also helps to strengthen the heart muscle which makes the cardiovascular system more efficient - the stronger your heart is, the more blood it can pump with each beat meaning more oxygen can be delivered to the rest of the body. All of this adds up to a great base fitness which makes you stronger and more efficient when it's time to go hard.

Easy pace running is also great to facilitate recovery between sessions whilst continuing to build fitness. These gentler sessions get the blood pumping round your muscles without putting too much stress on them, helping to flush out any soreness and get things moving again. Adding in gentle recovery paced runs to your routine is a great way to build up your mileage whilst keeping the overall intensity at a safe level, reducing the risk of injury.

Finally there's the mental benefits of a lovely long run at a civilised pace. The high intensity sessions aren't just hard on your body, they can take a toll on the mind too - when you're constantly digging deep and hurting it's easy to lose the enjoyment factor and motivation can fade. Mixing in lower intensity sessions gives you time to just enjoy the act of running. There's something so refreshing about just getting out, clearing your head and exploring the outdoors without constantly eyeballing your pace or having 'am I going to puke or burp' moments.

So there's the benefits, but how should a long slow distance run feel? If you're into numbers there's a few great pace calculators out there which can tell you exactly what pace you should be running to on your low intensity runs. I tend to favour the Jack Daniels' VDOT calculator or the Tinman calculator - just pop in a recent time for 5k (or another distance) and you'll get a whole list of different paces to target for various sessions. If you're more into running to feel then your long slow distance running pace should feel comfortable and like you could maintain it for a good few hours. You should be relaxed and easily able to maintain a conversation. It's important to note that your comfortable running pace can vary day to day so a mixture of running to pace and running to feel is always good. Your body knows best so listen to it! How often and how far you're running is dependent on the individual - what distance you're racing and what your goals are - but a training plan should generally have a smart balance between low intensity long and recovery runs, tempo runs and speed work. Train smart and you'll race fast.

Happy running!

7.3 Things I Learnt From My First Ironman 70.3

Views from the top of the Kitzeinhorn Glacier, Zell am See
Through 9 months of training and 6 hours 26 minutes of racing, the journey to the finish line of my first Ironman 70.3 definitely taught me a few things. From how to tackle a big climb to becoming the queen of snot rockets (sorry everyone) it's been a bit of an education. I'd probably be here until Christmas if I tried to list everything, but here's the main things that swim-bike-run to mind:

1) Do the thing you're worst at
I spent most of the bike leg of IM 70.3 Zell am See grinning like an idiot. I had a bloody great time out there and I felt really strong, which is pretty amazing because this time last year 90% of the time my catchphrase was 'I f**king hate cycling'. I used to be too scared to let go of the handle bars to get my bottle out of the cage, stopping/starting usually involved me ending up sideways on the side of the road (damn clip-in pedals) and the mere thought of any form of road junction made me quake in my little cycling shoes. My coach knew he had his work cut out when the girl who was terrified of cycling said she wanted to do a half ironman so working on my bike skills was the major focus in my training plans. It took time, patience and determination but I soon started making big progress and now it's safe to say the bike is currently my favourite and potentially strongest triathlon discipline. It can be so tempting to just avoid the thing you're worst at because chances are it's the thing you least enjoy. Be honest with yourself, identify your weakness and work hard to make it your strength. The benefits you'll get are so worth it.

2) You're training your mind as much as you're training your body
"The greatest limiter you face is not the many miles you train, but rather the few inches between your ears. You are fully capable of achieving much more than you think you can." - Joe Friel

In his book 'The Triathlete's Training Bible' Joe Friel emphasises the fact that you have to work on your mental fitness just as much as your physical fitness. When you set yourself a goal that treads the line of what you think is possible, you have to believe in it to be able to achieve it. Looking back over my training, 9 times out of 10 the difference between a crap session and a great one can often be pinpointed to my mindset. Believing that I can, learning to shut the negative thoughts out and finding my mental toughness has been a big part of the journey. I've still got work to do but I'm getting there.

3) You'll probably have to remortgage the house/sell your spleen after an overexcited pre-race visit to the Expo
It's like gift shop syndrome on steroids. Did you know you can get an Ironman cake tin, spatula and apron? I didn't take things quite that far but I've got a pretty good stash and I will be very ~on brand~ until further notice. The expo at Zell am See was only open pre-race so I was a little bit paranoid that I was jinxing myself by buying race merch before I'd even started, but it was quite a good motivator to get to the finish line so I could actually wear it all!

4) Walking around transition on race morning is like trying to navigate the supermarket on Christmas Eve
A heady combination of stress, nerves, excitement and adrenaline turns otherwise reasonable people into bumping, barging, bike pump wielding maniacs. Trying to negotiate your way through final bike checks and the swim start line up on race morning is a little bit like trying to get at the last packet of mince pies at 3.58pm in Tesco on Christmas eve. With people furiously sprinting up and down, windmilling their arms in an effort to get warmed up (I saw one guy accidentally punch a lamp post doing this) finding a quiet spot away from the hype was really important to stay calm and get a relatively stress free start to the race. It's worth pointing out, though, that once the race had started the sense of comradeship and camaraderie between competitors was great. So many people were urging each other on throughout the race. It just goes to show that whilst we might all look a little bit mad gallivanting around in our wetsuits when we're stressed out pre-race (the mildly shocked look that the swim cap facelift gives you doesn't help) - triathletes really are a very friendly bunch.

5) Spectator support is the ultimate power up
From the cries of 'hup hup hup' that rang out as we made our way up the climb to the people cheering and the kids hosing us down with cold water on the run, the support from the crowds at Zell am See was pretty awesome. It really does make a difference too. You're constantly pushing your body and testing your mental and physical limits so a smile and a high five goes a long way.

6) A half marathon and a half marathon in an Ironman 70.3 are completely different beasts
Rookie error number 1? Completely underestimating how hard the half marathon would feel with 56 miles of hilly riding in my legs. I'd done plenty of running off the bike in training but there's still a lot of work to be done to get myself stronger and more resilient. Rookie error number 2 - I just didn't even think about nutrition on the run. I'd meticulously practiced my bike nutrition, but I hadn't really put any thought into the fact that I would need to keep fuelling throughout the run. Fool. I had one 'in case of emergency' gel in my pocket which I didn't have until 2km from the end. Lesson learnt - nutrition practice on long training runs is a must, especially now I'll be stepping up to full Ironman distance.

7) Never take "just finishing" for granted
It's easy to lose perspective of how big a challenge you're undertaking, how much you're asking of your body and how many things can potentially go wrong - particularly those that are out of your control. I think it's so important to remember that just finishing is an achievement in itself when there's so much to overcome. I came so close to ending up with a DNF, despite being a good 2 hours within the cut off time, because of a storm. I'm pretty sure I'm one of the last ones who got across that finish line before they stopped the race due to the weather - and that's only because I argued with a marshall like my life depended on it (told you I'd found some mental toughness!) It just makes me realise that you can't take finishing for granted, even if you're less than 1km from the finish line. I'd literally just thought to myself 'I've definitely done it, even if both my legs spontaneously fell off I'm pretty sure I could drag my carcass over the finish line from here' when the marshall tried to make me stop. It's not over until you've got some bling round your neck (and some post-race carbs in your cake hole...)

7.3) Finishing will give you way more than just a medal and sore legs
Completing something which seemed a little bit impossible at the start of the journey will give you self-belief, confidence and a new found appreciation of the things that your body can achieve. I signed up to Ironman Copenhagen less than 24hrs after crossing the finish line of my first Ironman 70.3. Partly because I just got way too overexcited, but mostly because I genuinely believe that with a lot of hard work I can do it. And that's a huge thing for me because I'm the kind of person who's self-belief has always been a bit awol. It just proves that sport is a powerful, wonderful thing.

If you fancy a read of my full race report from Ironman 70.3 Zell am See click here.

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