How Running Slower Can Actually Help You Run Faster

Run slower to run faster: While this sounds extremely contradictory, I can tell you from experience, it works (and science backs me up!). I've been running for more than 20 years, and when I run, I like to run fast. There's no better feeling than untying my shoes after a run and knowing I gave my all.

If a faster pace is your goal, spend some time in the slow lane. (Image: Lacheev/iStock/GettyImages)

However, in the past few years as a running coach, I've learned that slowing down is just as critical to my overall pace and success as sprinting or intervals. And while running at a slower pace may not give you that same heart throbbing, "I just crushed that run" feeling that a challenging run does, slower runs are actually the foundation to your speed work and overall success.

How? First, let's back up a little bit.

Type of Running Workouts

There are several types of runs. You have your tempo-based runs, which are between 15 to 30 seconds faster than your average pace and range from 4 to 6 miles. Then, you have your beloved sprint workouts, where you feel like a total boss running 60-second sprints or 400-meter repeats.

Then there's speed endurance training, like 800-meter repeats and two-mile repeats, where you get to push your limits with a challenging distance at a comfortably hard pace. And if you are training for a half marathon, marathon or ultra race, you have your staple long runs, which are usually done at your average pace.

But what about giving your body a break? Where does that fall in? And I'm not talking rest days. I'm talking easy-pace aerobic runs.

What’s an Aerobic Run and Why Is It Important?

I like to call these slow, aerobic-based runs, "junk miles." Other people call them "conversation pace runs," meaning you're able to hold a conversation effortlessly during your run. These types of runs typically last between 60 minutes and two hours at about 60 to 90 seconds slower than your average pace.

And trust me, I know it can be hard to hold yourself back. It can be difficult for two reasons: First, there can be a fear associated with losing speed or not getting enough out of your workout. And second, you have to be extremely patient.

But if you train hard and fast all the time without taking the time to build up a solid aerobic base, all your speed work will be in vain. "If we try to train speed without having the aerobic efficiency to keep it up, we will end up having to stop or slow down, thus making it unusable speed for an endurance event," says Ryan Chow, doctor of physical therapy with Reload Physical Therapy at Performix House.

That's because, when you run faster than what your aerobic system can handle, the lactic acid buildup gradually decreases how much force you can produce and you'll have to slow down until your body clears it out, he says. Conversely, "running slow builds aerobic efficiency, which means you can keep up a certain pace while only relying on your aerobic system."

"These types of slower runs are also a great opportunity to work on running mechanics to help optimize the run and decrease risk of injury," says Joe Lipsky, doctor of physical therapy also with Reload Physical Therapy at Performix House. "Learning good running mechanics needs to start at a slower speed so that over time the body can integrate the new mechanics at higher speeds."

How Do You Pace an Aerobic Run?

Ready to run? Heart rate monitoring is going to be a crucial tool to track your effort. If your average pace has you at a heart rate of 150 bpm, your easy runs are going to be around 120 bpm. Or if you're wearing a fitness tracker, stick to 60 to 90 seconds slower than your average pace, as mentioned above.

And while these runs can be boring, I've learned how to flip the script on this mentality, and instead, look at my aerobic runs as my "moving meditation." So, rather than wiring my brain to be competitive, I use the time during these runs as a way to plot out next moves with my business, set new goals or come up with solutions to problems that have been nagging at me.

Think of this as mindful running. Be mentally present during these runs — mindful of how your body hits the ground and what your thought process is. As a result, you'll become a stronger athlete, both mentally and physically.

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