Matt Fitzgerald— Kenya’s distance runners are known as some of the fastest in the world. But they don’t always run fast. “They actually do a lot of their training at very easy paces,” says Lance Watson, cofounder of Lifesport Coaching in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Kenyan runners often come to Vancouver to train, and sometimes when you see them out running together they’re barely moving.”
Willingness to go slow is not uncommon among elite distance runners. It’s much less common, however, among competitive age-group triathletes, who, because they run less frequently than runners, think they have to “make every run count” by going at least moderately fast. But, according to Watson, there is a place for slow running in triathlon training too. “Just because slow running is relatively easy doesn’t mean it isn’t beneficial,” Watson says. “It builds aerobic fitness, endurance, and fat-burning capacity.”
How slow is slow? According to Watson, the appropriate pace for slow running is the equivalent of a comfortable warm-up pace. In heart rate terms, it’s zone 1, or about 25 beats per minute below your threshold heart rate. Watson recommends slow running for no fewer than five distinct situations:
Recovery runs: Your first run after a long or high-intensity run or bike ride should be slow and comfortable, according to Watson.
Extra runs: Watson is a big believer in training as frequently as possible in all three triathlon disciplines. But any runs you add to your current weekly schedule should be slow to provide an extra aerobic stimulus without a lot of extra stress on the body.
Plan B workouts: On days when you have a challenging run planned but your body just doesn’t feel up to it, do a slow run instead. “It’s far better than nothing,” Watson says.
Long bricks: When Watson coaches an athlete who has trouble putting a decent marathon together in an Ironman, he has him or her do very long bike-run (or “brick”) workouts that include a zone 1 run. Start with an hour run after a two-hour ride and build to a two-hour run after a three- to four-hour ride. But keep it slow! “It’s all about getting used to being on your feet for a prolonged period of time,” Watson says.
Returning from injury: Zone 1 running is much less stressful on the tissues of the legs than faster running. Therefore, Watson advises athletes to do all of their running at a slow pace for the first couple weeks after an injury layoff to minimize the risk of a setback.