Race Faster by Training Slower

A group of runners during a workout on a track

A fresh perspective on the value of recovery and cumulative adaptation for endurance sports

The notion of training slower to race faster is counterintuitive on the surface. How can we possibly be capable of running marathon pace for several hours come race day if we do not frequently run that pace in training?

Distance running, along with other endurance sports, is often plagued with the expectation that every race should be a personal best. Couple that with the desire to post kudos-worthy workouts day-in-day-out on Strava, and many fall into a downward spiral of focusing on achieving an immediate result instead of optimizing long-term growth. Consequently, we ingrain habits that ultimately inhibit our progression.

The difficult truth is that endurance sports are lifetime endeavors, requiring adaptations that happen gradually over time. While stressing the body is absolutely necessary to induce improvement, grinding harder than competitors in training is not always the best method for success. ...

What if the secret to success is to train easier more often?

The problem with how we train

Improving fitness is a simple, repetitive cycle: stress the body a little more than you have previously, then allow your body to absorb the training. The crucial point to remember is that fitness is gained during the recovery period following a hard effort, not during the hard effort itself. To take full advantage of our hard sessions, we need to take full advantage of our easy sessions.

Many of us fall into a trap of training in a grey zone. Our easy runs are not easy enough, which carries over excess fatigue to our hard workouts, hindering us from performing at the level needed. The result is that we complete too much of our training at a moderate effort. Regression toward an effort that is not easy nor hard enough often leads us to a plateau in our improvement. So, what to do?

Spend more time in Zone 2

The idea of high volume, low-intensity training is not new, but it was more recently popularized in the running world by Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running. Under this training regiment, 80-percent of time running is spent in Zone 2, which can be roughly calculated as 60- to 70-percent of your maximum heart rate. Training at this heart rate feels strikingly easy, which is why we tend to exceed this zone on a typical run.

There is now a multitude of research that shows training in Zone 2 allows an athlete to gain aerobic fitness without over-stressing the parasympathetic nervous system. It also allows tissues, muscles and joints to strengthen so they can be resilient to high-intensity workouts and races in the future, thwarting off injuries.

Too much high-intensity training without ample recovery causes an accumulation of chronic fatigue. The body simply cannot absorb all the stress and turn it into fitness. Frequently extending beyond Zone 2 during recovery runs compromises performance during subsequent workouts and races and further limits the benefits you gain from training.

The easiest way to ensure easy days are duly easy and hard days amply hard, is by monitoring heart rate. Going off of pace alone can be inaccurate because the same pace requires varying levels of effort depending on how our bodies are feeling on a given day. Thanks to technology advances, it is easier than ever to track time spent in each heart rate zone with sleek watches and heart rate monitors.

Make your hard workouts count

Spending more time training slower does not discount the importance of hard workouts. In fact, it amplifies their importance. Tough training sessions prepare you for both the physical and mental demands come race day when you're asking your body to run faster. Without them, there will not be any stresses for your body to adapt to during your Zone 2 recovery days.

Typically, two to three hard efforts are recommended per week depending on how far out you are from your goal race. These sessions should come in a variety of flavors, such as hills, intervals, and tempo runs, to ensure your body is practicing an array of speeds and optimizing different energy systems. The saying ‘train hard, race easy’ has a lot of truth to it as long as there is ample Zone 2 recovery involved, as well.

Take recovery as seriously as workouts

As previously mentioned, fitness improvements actually occur during the recovery period following a hard training session. On top of keeping easy runs sufficiently easy, optimizing sleep, diet and overall stress levels can allow your body to reap the full benefits of adaptation and shorten the time it takes to fully recover so you are prepared for the next hard workout.

Sleep, diet, and overall stress play a critical role in recovery, and their importance should not be discounted. If your body is not recovering well, it might be more beneficial to push back the next planned workout in favor of additional recuperation time. Progress is not linear, and listening to what your body is telling you will bring out your best over time.

Develop a long-term growth mindset

We cannot force fitness. Adaptation takes time, and those who play the long game are rewarded. Solely focusing on the immediate gratification from hitting a killer workout and feeling like you need to PR in a workout to affirm your fitness are both pitfalls to avoid. The accumulation of months and years of consistent training is the driver of reaching new performance levels.

By Chris Robertson. Robertson races competitively for Chicago’s Fleet Feet Nike Racing Team. He holds a marathon personal best of 2:24 and is the Beer Mile American Record holder (4:46). He is currently training with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon and defending his 2017 Beer Mile World Title while working full-time as a Technology Consultant and pursuing additional entrepreneurial endeavors.