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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!

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