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Why Slow Running Is Good For You

No matter how fast or slow you think of yourself, it’s time to own it. There’s speedy for you, and then there’s your own version of a leisurely jog, and that’s the great thing about running—you can go at your own pace.

When I became a certified running coach earlier this year through the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), our textbook and class discussion focused on incorporating different paces for all runners for multiple reasons. One of the most important reasons is because so many runners suffer injuries from not running slowly enough—or ever.

Think about it: Many runners simply head out the door and go as hard as they can. There might be a little variation depending on the day or terrain, but generally speaking, they have one pace and it’s GO! I used to be like this. (Alternatively, if you’re taking it super easy on every run and not breathing hard or breaking a sweat, you should challenge yourself with some speedy efforts—but that’s another article.)

If you follow an official training plan, you’ve likely seen instructions for easy runs and faster ones. But a lot of runners don’t really understand what that means—or why.

What Is Slow Running?

Your own version of “slow” can be thought of as conversation-pace running. If you can pretty easily have chat with a buddy, then that’s your slow speed.

To give you an idea of the difference in fast and slow for two different runners, here’s the kind of information in pace charts that RRCA coaches use. 1) Say you can run a 5K in 30 minutes, that’s a pace of 9:40 (fast); your easy long run should be 12-minute miles (slow). 2) If you can run a half marathon in under 2 hours (about 9-minute miles), a slow run would be 10:22; you could expect to run a 5K in 25:30, at an 8:13 pace.

If you’re more apt to track your heart rate on runs, a gentle pace would likely find your heart rate at approximately 110 to 140 beats per minute. While these numbers may give you some idea of where you should be if you keep track of your time, pace or heart rate, if not, don’t worry. These differences also relate to your effort and breathing—which relates back to the idea of being able to talk.

If you think you’re the slowest runner out there (lots of people think this, but there’s no reason to compare yourself to anyone else!) and still breathing hard and feeling like you’re going all out most of the time, you aren’t going slowly enough at times.

When Should You Go Slow?

Whenever you start running, it’s best to start slowly. Run at conversation pace for about 10–15 minutes to give your body a chance to warm up. Conversely, it’s great to end your workout with at least 5 minutes easy to cool down.

Standard advice from RRCA coaches will be to schedule two to four “efforts” per week. An effort is going to be fast and/or long runs as well as cross-training, so depending on how many days per week you run, other days should be slower. This means 75–80 percent of your weekly mileage should be slower running.

What Are the Benefits Of Going Slowly?

The pros of running at a conversational pace, according to RRCA, include:

  • Strengthens muscles in legs, torso and arms
  • Adapts tendons, ligaments, joints and bones to stress of running
  • Promotes efficient running form
  • Teaches patience, discipline and how to handle physical discomfort
  • Trains the cardio, respiratory and muscular systems to work more efficiently
  • Increases the quantity and size of mitochondria, improving oxygen use and glycogen stores

Does It Matter How Long You Run Slowly?

There are different benefits based on how long your run is. If you do a lot of weekly mileage, it’s best to include a variety of distances. When you have a short, easy run (less than 45 minutes), this is good for recovery and helps flush waste from tired muscles and builds strength.

If you run a medium-distance run at a slow pace (this would be 45–90 minutes), you’re building strength without too much stress, both physically and mentally. This also increases your body’s ability to transfer and use oxygen.

A long, slow run (90-plus minutes) teaches the body to improve glycogen storage and use as well as increases the ability to handle discomfort.

Besides all of these varied benefits, you are also avoiding one of the number-one risk factors for injury. Going too fast and too far can be a recipe that doesn’t taste good at all.

Nicki Miller

Nicki Miller

Nicki Miller is the managing editor for Women's Running and spearheads our nutrition coverage. She’s an avid runner but also loves cycling (both on and off-road), yoga and all kinds of crazy videos to do at home. Formerly the editor of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, Nicki started her journalism career at The Washington Post. Her first races were duathlons (run, bike, run) in her twenties with her husband, and then triathlons, completing the White Lake Half Ironman in North Carolina. Since joining Women’s Running in 2013, she’s been more focused on half marathons and trail running. Some of her proudest moments have been running the Boston Marathon (first 26.2), and becoming an RRCA certified running coach and helping others take up the sport.