Being a slow runner is frustrating. You know you’re not lazy. You actually enjoy the feeling of working hard. And you welcome a challenge and aspire to run faster. Be it a longer race or a rough trail, you stare down the next obstacle and respond with an enthusiastic, “bring it on!”
And yet … you don’t seem to get any faster. [Insert exasperated sigh]
And some days, you actually sense yourself getting slower. What gives?
Are you destined to be a slow runner forever?
The good news is that you can tweak your training to escape the slow lane and start running faster. But before we dive into how to do that, let’s get one things clear: slow isn’t bad.
The reason I believe so many runners characterize training stagnation as slowness is because it’s the most obvious symptom of a bigger issue. But being slow isn’t the problem. Slowness isn’t a flaw. Slowness isn’t failure. In fact, being slow is one your best attributes when it comes to building an aerobic efficiency or base fitness. And you don’t get faster until you have that base firmly in place.
And of course, slowness is a relative term, meaning you’ll always be slower than someone else. And you’ll always be faster than someone else, too. So right off the bat, let’s agree that we’ll put aside the concept of “slowness” as a label and open our minds to slowness as a symptom of something else. And that something else can be improved with the right training modifications.
Why You’re Slow Scenario 1: You’re Under-Recovered
If you’re slowing because you feel tired all the time there’s a chance you are under-recovered. This means your body is not able to make the adaptations to repair and recover from exercise.
This occurs when there isn’t enough time between workouts for these adaptations to occur or your body lacks the energy to repair itself, either due to a nutritional deficit and/or insufficient sleep.
Remedy: Take More Rest Days
Taking more frequent rest days (involving no running at all or substituting a low-intensity activity) will give your body extra time to recover.
You can do this even if you’re in the process of ramping up mileage for a race. You’ll feel more energized for your long runs (the week’s most important workout) by keeping all the other runs relatively short and at an easy pace. The purpose of these other runs is to support recovery, not build fitness, so they needn’t be in any way taxing. Save that effort for your long run.
And use the extra down time to focus on things that support recovery, such as your diet, sleep and stress levels.
Why You’re Slow Scenario 2: You’re Using the Wrong Measurement
How are you defining yourself as slow? Are you comparing yourself to your running partners? Seeing a decline in race finishing times? Comparing your run segments with others on Strava? Or do you have a minute-per-mile threshold in mind above which you consider any pace slow?
Remedy: Run by Feel
However you’re doing it, it’s time to switch things up. From now on, I want you to stop looking at the numbers and start to focus on feel.
That’s right. How you feel—your perceived exertion (PE) rate—is going to reveal a lot more about your running pace that your watch. Most of your miles should feel easy (measuring a 2-3 out of a maximum PE of 10), and if that means running even slower than you are now, then do it! These miles are improving your aerobic efficiency, which means your body is getting better at burning fat to fuel your consistent movement.
Then, once a week, add short intervals of faster running. These intervals could be as short as two to three minutes at a time--or longer--as long as you’re able to maintain good form and a consistent pace. The purpose of these speed sessions is primarily to help you find your other “gears,” meaning moving your feet more rapidly than usual (called “turnover”). These intervals aren’t an all-out effort, rather, should rate about 5-6 out of 10 on the PE scale).
But this faster pace doesn’t replace your usual relaxed (slow) training pace, which is the foundation of your run practice.
Why You’re Slow Scenario #3: You’re Overtrained
Overtraining, also called overtraining syndrome (OS), can happen to anyone, even those who aren’t running high mileage or racing often. Overtraining occurs when an increase in running volume or intensity exceeds the body’s ability to adapt to it. As a result, you become increasingly tired over time and your fitness declines instead of improves.
Remedy: Take A Break
A slowing pace, especially when accompanied by waning motivation, may indicate overtraining. Especially if you’ve been adding speed workouts, increased your normal run pace or added more mileage (or all of these!), then try taking a break.
This may mean a few days off from running altogether, or one or several weeks of dramatically reduced mileage. Don’t be afraid to step back from training for a period of time and seeing what happens. You likely won’t lose much fitness, but you may feel refreshed and have more pep in your step after some time off. Patience is your ally when searching for faster gears. They’re there, and you’ll find them!