It’s a commonly held belief that when you go out running you need to run fast and hard, sweat buckets, and pant like a dog for a session to be ‘worth it’. The reasoning being that training fast brings more rapid improvement. That’s true. But that improvement is limited and plateaus fast.
The trick is to focus first on your aerobic base which can be steadily improved for years. Long easy distance is the name of the game, and hopefully this article will persuade you why.
TRAIN SLOW TO RACE FAST: THE METABOLIC PYRAMID
The Metabolic Pyramid
HERE’S THE SCIENCE
When we run there’s a point at which the body starts to work harder and lactate begins accumulating in the muscles. This point is called the Aerobic Threshold (AeT).
Lactate is a byproduct generated by the cells when producing energy at higher intensities. Annoyingly, when it builds-up faster than we can remove it, it basically stops our muscles working and causes exhaustion.
Now the finer details are a little more complicated, but we can think about it like this. If we train the regions above AeT we get fast results, but they’re also very limited—ultimately lactate is still accumulating.
Alternatively, if we train the region below AeT (essentially the aerobic system), improvement is slow but virtually infinite—one of the main reasons why ultra-athletes peak so late in life. And what’s more, by expanding our aerobic capacity we stay lactate-less even at faster speeds, meaning that those paces become entirely sustainable (or at least until our legs fall apart…!).
Even for the elites, aerobic training makes up 60-70% of their training. Even 800m runners with their speedy sub-2min races, are doing over 50% of their training here, usually with years of aerobic base building already behind them.
For most of us, we should be looking at much more like 80-100%. Look at it as an opportunity. You have years of base building improvement ready to exploit!
SO HOW FAST SHOULD YOU RUN?
To train the aerobic system you need to be running below AeT. But unless you have a metabolic testing lab handy, that’s not particularly helpful. Below are a couple of rough guidelines.
The key point is that AeT is relative dependent on your training history and aerobic fitness, so specific time and pace guidelines aren’t remotely useful. Everyone is different.
For most people, when you’re running too fast to speak full sentences, AeT is long behind you. So as long as you’re able to hold conversation, or talk out loud to yourself as I like to do (don’t judge me…), then you’re in the right zone. Holding your breath for five seconds is another useful test.
For us non-elites, the ability to breathe through our noses can also correspond well with AeT, though if you’re up there with the professionals it tends not to be so accurate.
BUT I’M GOING TOO SLOW – DON’T COPY THE ELITES!
Aerobic training can feel VERY slow to begin with—you may even be walking. This is where that saying comes in: ‘Trust the Process!’
It’s easy to look at the training paces of elites and aim for those. But remember that training is relative. To them, 7-minute miles aren’t all that fast—in fact they’re comfortably under AeT. But if we attempted to replicate that we’d be redlining well into lactate territory: a sure recipe for overtraining and injury.
First we need to catch up! So get out there, kill your ego, and start enjoying those long, easy miles.
HEART RATE TEST
I have produced a presentation which explains in more detail why and when it's best to use heart rate training. It also explains how to perform a test you can do at home to set your own zones. get in touch if you would like a copy.