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Why Do I Have to Run Slowly?
Updated on July 13, 2012
Long slow distance (the other mind altering LSD) running is known as the "base" of any running program. Before the famous coach, Arthur Lidiard, popularized building a base for running and putting in the long slow miles to get faster, people were doing all sorts of crazy things. Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four minute mile, just did heaps of speed work on his lunch breaks. Ok so he was a miler. Many marathoners were doing the same thing, going out there as hard ad they could every run. So why not? Let's look at why you should run slowly and go from there.
Running slowly teaches your body to use fat as fuel. At the low end of the exertion scale, your body actually burns adipose tissue for fuel, much like at rest and most activities in your daily life. This is a good thing because your body has a lot more fat than it has capacity to carry that many calories worth of carbohydrate. The bad news is that it is mostly inaccessible... Still it makes sense to allow your body to figure out how to better access that fuel. This is the logic behind the "fat burning zone." Problem is that you get a lot more energy from fat than you do from stored sugar. And since you are working at a lower intensity, you need less energy. Which makes it the fat burning zone unideal for consistent weight loss and ideal for endurance events. Of course, anyone training for a marathon knows that LSD training burns a lot of calories, but your body eventually adjusts... A good thing for actually running that marathon.
Unfortunately, your cardiovascular system develops much faster than your musculoskeletal system. This means a bigger engine than your car can hold. Musculoskeletal injuries occur because the body is able to push past the zone in which the body can comfortably hold together. Running slowly helps build muscle, ligament and bone strength by providing just enough stimulation (read as impact) as to build your body up... not so much that it cannot recover and simply breaks down. Cheat your long run pace and you will likely find yourself in a ditch!
As said slow running helps build your cardiovascular system up. It helps your body build the little aerobic power plants in your body that create fuel called mitochondria. Also, if you run past your distance comfort zone (which can only be done at a slow pace so as not to crash) studies show that you are recruiting fast twitch muscle fibers... the kind of muscle fibers associated with anaerobic work (without air - thinking power like sprinting in a short burst) much like you would be doing during a strength program.
Running long as slow, if done the right way, should also help you to develop your form. You are out there for a long time, doing not much else (let's face it running does not require the high degree of concentration say, tennis does) so you may as well mediate on your form and try to make your running style as soft and flowing as possible. Last marathon I completed, I was very very injured and hadn't ran much (and not more than 10k) in months. I simply meditated on running as softly as was possible and made it to the finish line sans injury... albeit not breaking any land speed records.
Lastly, running long and slow is fun. Running long and fast is less so. Grab some friends and explore. It should be an enjoyable adventure. Save your speed for your speed work. You only need run slowly to get the above benefits... where as in a speed session you best be giving it your game to get the results. Too many people run their long runs too fast and their speed too slow. If a third party could not instantly and very obviously tell when you are doing a tempo versus a long run, you are shorting yourself in both arenas!
See you on the trails!