One Dirty Magazine

It’s OK To Slow Down And Embrace Chill-Paced Adventure

Taking your time and relaxing during some long training days can make you faster.

David Roche July 15th, 2019

It’s OK To Slow Down And Embrace Chill-Paced Adventure Kim Olson adventuring at the 2019 Trail Runner Magazine Running Camp, Snowmass, Colorado.

An anxiety I see all the time in training logs relates to effort levels on easy days. That anxiety makes sense. It’s tempting to think faster is better for long-term adaptations. If you can run 8-minute pace or 9-minute pace, 8–minute pace will make you faster, right? The answer to that question gets at the heart of what running training is all about.

Simply put … (grabs a bullhorn) … YOU CAN SLOW DOWN EASY DAYS AS MUCH AS YOU WANT.

… (puts down bullhorn and whispers) It’s possible to go too slow too often but that is not something most athletes face unless they are not doing any workouts. Plus that makes a far less sexy chant.

In fact, slower might be better for many runs if combined with faster running at other times in the week. It all gets back to how aerobic adaptations happen over weeks, months and years, layering cellular-level adaptations and system-wide adaptations and mixing it together within an individual’s neurological/stress context. 

We’ll get to some of those physiology details in a second. Before that, let’s think of an application that is unique for trail runners and the specific subject of this article: long, slow adventures.

Imagine you’re doing a big route in the mountains, five or 10 or 20 miles over semi-technical ground. In this hypothetical, there are three ways you could run it. 

  1. Workout-style, pushing it on uphills and going moderately hard at times.
  2. Long-run-style, moving as efficiently as you can without throwing up your oatmeal.
  3. Pure-adventure-style, taking lots of photos, hiking lots and going an hour or two slower than you could with more focus.

Theoretically, Choice A would provide a specific stimulus for shorter races, Choice B a specific stimulus for longer races, Choice C a specific stimulus for love and joy and fun, but probably won’t be specific to any race except maybe 100Ks or 100-milers.

 

How Slower Running Supports Faster Running

Which of the above scenarios is better? If you thought I was going to provide an answer to that question, you probably forgot I am a former lawyer, and every law school has the same motto: “It depends.” Instead, this article is designed to emphasize that A and B are not inherently better than C in a well-rounded training plan. 

The reasoning gets back to what we’re talking about when we say “aerobic adaptations” for runners. Here, the simple way I like athletes to think about it is as the body’s ability to supply working muscles with fuel, producing a steady stream of energy that can support sustainable power output. So to condense it immensely, it’s the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, circulatory system, musculoskeletal system and nervous system all working together, applied via the specific biomechanical motions of trail running. 

Combine slower running with fast strides on hills or flats (possibly even at the end of a slow adventure), weekly workouts designed to improve running economy and some steady running, and you can be ready for anything on the trails.

What’s so cool about running training is that those systems interact in complex, multivariable ways that can be tough to predict with the linear reasoning that our brains prefer. For example, there is a temptation to say, “Do this workout to get this adaptation.” If only it worked that way 100 percent of the time, running training would be so much easier to summarize.

A more accurate line might be, “Do this workout, which will interact with your psychological state and stress levels, plus your training history, to introduce acute stress layered on chronic stress that may cause you to get faster or slower in the coming weeks and months, depending on your genetics, environment, behavior and possibly whether Mercury is in retrograde.” That answer probably made the lawyers in the audience all hot and bothered.

Of the underlying aerobic adaptations, a few may actually be improved by going slower. There is recruitment of Type I slow-twitch muscle fibers that have more mitochondria, more capillaries and more endurance for long-distance running (for an overview of some of the complexities of muscle fiber recruitment, see this 2012 article from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research). Angiogenesis is the process of capillary growth, which could theoretically be imparied by too-intense exercise (see this 2015 study from Experimental Physiology and this one from 2016 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports). Enzymes that play a central role in aerobic development may act similarly, depending on the stimulus and context. The same goes for lipid metabolism.

On top of that, going slower can increase the duration of stress, which could affect a number of adaptations. There is a reason cyclists often do long, slow days that are essentially equivalent to low intensity hike/jogs, but with more saddle sores (especially early season). Slow adventures can reduce the amount of stress hormone cortisol circulating in the bloodstream, which could positively impact adaptations in some athletes. They could reduce muscle damage, letting subsequent workouts be stronger and supporting long-term health. Most importantly, they may be more fun, helping create a psychological context that increases love of the process. And based on some exciting research like this 2018 article in Sports Medicine, neurophysical context could actually be a major influence in how the body adapts to stimuli in the first place. 

That’s not to say slower is always better. Increased output improves muscular strength on uphills, faster speeds on downs support eccentric muscle contractions that make the body more resilient and aerobic capacity/lactate threshold and similar intensity-driven variables require some harder work. But those adaptations don’t require daily reinforcement. In fact, they’re probably best supported by slowing down and smelling the roses more often than most runners would if left to their own devices. Intensity without a strong aerobic base usually results in calamity, eventually.

Combine slower running with fast strides on hills or flats (possibly even at the end of a slow adventure), weekly workouts designed to improve running economy and some steady running, and you can be ready for anything on the trails. Well, maybe not hungry mountain lions. Consider adding some push-ups just in case.

 

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s end with an example that illustrates how trail-running training is rather complicated. 2 weeks before the 2019 Western States 100 Miler, Clare Gallagher went to Alaska to advocate for the Arctic National Refuge (contact your representative now and ask them to vote YES on HR1146 to stop oil leases in the refuge). For seven days, from June 14 to 21, she didn’t run a step. Instead, she backpacked on an awareness-raising expedition, spending substantial time on her feet and having a few max-heart-rate spikes when she nearly fell off steep cliffs.

The big takeaway: the goal of running training isn’t to coerce your body to adapt through brute force, it’s to let your talent shine through consistency and daily adventures. So don’t be afraid to slow down. You may just find a hidden reserve of aerobic superpowers. 

When she returned, she did some runs to reestablish her cardiac stroke output and running economy, focusing on strides and hill pushes to get her body back into full gear. But even with those training days, she didn’t do much running in the last few weeks before the race. She went on to run the 2nd-fastest time ever to win. The low-intensity hiking stimulus paid off. Or at the very least probably did not hurt. Though, as always, it’s impossible to know for sure, as much as our brains want to say A + B led to C. 

Incorporating similar adventures in your own training could pay off too. Aside from that, it will support getting to beautiful places and embracing the long-term process of growth and adventure. 

Every athlete varies, but I often ask that Sunday runs be slower trail adventures, mixing running and hiking and photo taking, getting that low-level aerobic stimulus. Periodically throughout the year, they can do longer efforts with that mindset, like extra-long adventure routes, trail camps or hike/run expeditions. For most athletes, that means hiking the steeps, jogging the flats and letting the body flow naturally on downs. But it could just mean an all-day hike. Or for very fit and fast athletes, it could mean doing more intentionally slower runs in beautiful places. 

The big takeaway: the goal of running training isn’t to coerce your body to adapt through brute force, it’s to let your talent shine through consistency and daily adventures. So don’t be afraid to slow down. You may just find a hidden reserve of aerobic superpowers. 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.

 

 

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Kami Semick

Hi David, Thank you for your insightful article and reminder that we need to enjoy the process of training in order to reap full benefits. Personally, I really appreciate the link to the 2018 Sport Medicine article about how mental stress can contribute to a decrease in training adaptation and overall performance. This article articulated in a way that I had yet to fully comprehend why my performance and health suffered when I moved from Bend, Oregon to Hong Kong. I was at the height of my running career when our family decided to pursue an expat opportunity in Hong… Read more »

 

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