It’s Hard to Run Slowly

I hold several coach accreditations so I belong to several international forums where coaches discuss issues they have in their coaching practices. This question came through on one of the US forums and I thought I’d share my answer on because it is a common enough issue that I encounter. I haven’t all the answers. However, as a Lydiard Foundation coach, I espouse the benefits of building a big aerobic engine and we Lydiard Coaches often discuss this ‘how to get runners to slow down a bit’ issue. My United Sports Coaching Academy and England Athletics perspectives tends to bring my thoughts to more technical issues and these too are important. Hope you enjoy reading!  

Question from another coach

“I have an athlete who really struggles with running slow or running easy. He’s trying, but doesn’t get it. We tried (remote) already with pace and heartrate on his watch, but he keeps coming back to running around his threshold if he’s not paying attention for a minute and finds it really uncomfortable.  … I would like to hear your tricks for this issue”

My contribution

This is a problem many runners I’ve coached encounter and the reasons include, but are not limited to, the following. I give my suggestions for coaching interventions to help them change in italics within the brackets after each reason.

  1. Runner’s beliefs. Perhaps the runner does not really and truly, deep down, believe this approach will ultimately help them develop their endurance base. I often find people say ‘yes, of course I need to do a long slow Sunday run’. However, they only envisage a run done at almost threshold or at least done in a high aerobic zone. They genuinely don’t believe that a more MAF (Maffetone)-level run, i.e. a genuinely easy aerobic run, may be of benefit. (I think this requires a coach to educate the runner about the role of the slower runs in developing the aerobic base via improvements to the mitochondria, vasculature, cardiac function etc. Educating runners about this requires the coach to revisit the topic time and time again and it is a hard message to get across. Have a think about HOW the runner best learns – it may be that they need to be provided with specific examples from other runners stories if you know other runners who have done this training and benefited, or they may be more of a theorist and will appreciate being given reference sources to look at/read).
  1. Runner’s desire to perform. Perhaps the runner is led ultimately, in terms of pace and effort, by a desire to ‘perform’ on each run. They may not necessarily race each run but for each run they need to see real evidence (e.g., via HR, Power output) that they have definitely ‘put in a good session’. These folk are of the ‘go hard or go home’ mentality and find it hard to accept that a truly easy run is of any training benefit. Bear in mind that the pace of the first few truly easy runs for these athletes may be just above jogging pace although their pace will probably improve once their aerobic systems develop. Such runners often post runs to on-line sites where they can see what they are doing in comparison with what their friends are doing. This instils a sense of competition, which may mean they find it really hard to run a truly easy run because they are sort of losing this ‘competition’. Finally, if these runners run with a buddy/group, it may be necessary for them to run solo to establish their new type of running as, like posting to the on-line forums, it is likely that running with others fosters this sense of competition if the others are not willing/able to run truly easy runs. (Again, for the coach, education of the athlete is definitely required – see the first point – but also maybe suggest they simply do not post the run on-line. Just take that run ‘private’ so they keep the record but not have it available for public scrutiny. Perhaps also suggest they run alone for these runs until they find their effort and pace levels and can more reliably and confidently run these effort levels with others of similar pace. They may have to find some new running budies!!! Joking aside, this may mean they feel they are being ‘demoted’ to a ’lesser ability’ group and, again, ego may be the enemy here. Emphasising that training paces relate to goals and that training is NOT competition, rather it is the preparation for competition, may help. However, ego is a real issue  and far more eminent individuals than I have written tons of stuff on this …. ).  
  1. Runner finds it technically hard to run slowly. Some faster runners find it really unnatural and hard to run slowly. It sounds like your athlete is one of those! Basically it feels bad for them to run slowly and they have a natural ‘comfortable’ pace which is way too fast to allow them to train the aerobic base. This is a real issue, and many coaches may not have realised it or addressed it. Some faster runners who tend to run a single pace (often high aerobic, around threshold) have an easier time maintaining good running form at the higher paces but really find it hard to keep form when running slowly. Slower running often unmasks poor running biomechanics in my experience (think overstriding and overuse of the quads/hip flexors and calves, plus poor LPHC stability). (As a coach, I don’t just teach beginners how to walk well, how to transition between walking and running, and finally how to run well, I actually sometimes need to teach people who run fast how to run well when they are running slowly. I have to emphasise how hard it is to run well when running slowly! I run with them, observing from all sides and taking video footage as it is usually necessary to show the runner the real issues that may be apparent on slower running but that are hidden or less of an issue in their faster running. Then I help them to address the main issues that need work – remembering that there is no ‘perfect’, rather that we are seeking to help them be the best versions of themselves! I tend to revisit the running assessment after about 6-8 weeks to look for positive changes consequent on them using remedial exercises so that the process of improving their slow running is supported and encouraging. This is of course a resource consuming activity, and the athlete needs to be prepared to remunerate the coach for the extra time involved, but it may be necessary in some cases. I often find this sort of work is best done in groups as it takes time and may be too expensive if done 1:1.)
  1. Control the controllable (kit, environment etc.). Maybe the athlete finds their heart rate doesn’t necessarily drop to somewhere in the ‘easy aerobic’ zone, even when trying to run slowly. So the athlete isn’t seeing any ‘reward’ for their efforts, and may ignore the coach’s instructions part way through the run. There may be several reasons for this ranging from heart rate monitor not actually reading the real heart rate, through slow running being more effortful at the beginning for many folk, to recovery and environmental reasons hindering the reduction in effort as measured by HR. For the last one, think hormonal swings in women, lack of sleep, dehydration, chronic stress, choosing a hot or hilly route etc. (For the coach, clearly, we need to control the controllable. First making sure the heart rate monitor is actually measuring the HR correctly and not something like cadence! Don’t necessarily assume an experienced athlete will have already checked their heart rate measuring kit. Most watches measure HR from the wrist now, but this does not work well for some individuals so it’s worth a check and using a chest strap or an arm strap if necessary, or even using a power meter instead of/in addition to heart rate. Clearly, knowing your athlete’s HR ranges so you are sure of the ‘easy’ range for them would naturally follow. That addresses the ‘my heart is really different’ argument, although of course some individuals HR ranges are considerably different from the average! Coaching is an experiment of one in my view, so we need to look at each athlete individually if we are to really coach them anyway. Slow running may be more effortful at the beginning so the pace may reduce but the heart rate may take a few runs to settle especially if the athlete is struggling to make the run comfortable for themselves (see pervious point about this. Setting them up for success by encouraging them to try out the easier less effortful runs in the beginning when they are recovered and it is not too hot/cold/windy and using a route that is not too hilly/boggy. For the very ‘numbers/data minded’, setting the watch they wear up with THEIR accurate HR zones can help and asking them to set an alarm to alert them when they drift out of range. There are pros and cons to this – the main cons being over-reliance on the watch rather than using the far more accurate and bang up to the second ‘feelings-base’ to guide their training – remember heart rate changes are registered some time after the effort – and that the alarm may go off a lot in some circumstances and detract from the enjoyment of the running, for example if the route has sharp inclines and declines when pace/effort changes).
  1. Runner’s perception of effort flawed. Maybe the athlete has a flawed perception of effort if their heart rate is not being used to guide their effort. Some athletes prefer not to wear a watch with HR monitoring when the run easy. Many athletes use the ‘talk test’ to judge effort but don’t really apply it correctly. A few athletes seem to run with a lot of huffing and puffing. In my experience, most of these are actually running too fast for their current level of fitness. This is assuming any broncho-constriction has been dealt with adequately e.g., in asthmatics, as this can cause the athlete to experience extra effort. People returning to exercise after Covid infections (or any viral respiratory infection perhaps) can also feel very breathy and run high heart rates relative to the pace of running for a considerable period of time afterwards and it may be necessary to refer them outwards for a medical opinion. (For the coach, there are loads of resources on the ‘talk test’ and how it relates to Rate of Perceived exertion, Borg Scale, Heart rates etc. so I’m not going to delve into that. I will assume that any medical issues have been addressed. In my experience faster running athletes often think that just because they can talk at all they are running at ‘conversational pace’, and they maintain this view right up to the effort levels represented by 2-3 intermittently spoken words. That level of effort is NOT representative of easy running and, ultimately, the coach may need to run with the individual to deal with this problem and to really demonstrate what ‘having a conversation whilst running’ is actually like. This may be needed to show them that chatty conversational running is quite a lot different from those breathy gaspy snatches of half sentences they usually call converstions. In my group runs, I also suggest athletes try nasal breathing, so breathing in and out via the nose evenly with no need for a few extra mouth breaths every few minutes to ‘catch up’ and mitigate the developing oxygen deficit. I also suggest the conversation should be something like talking via mobile phone headset with a middle-aged slightly hard of hearing relative so the relative can hear them clearly PLUS the relative doesn’t do all the talking – they share the conversation equally. Singing aloud, not ‘in their heads’, is another one but most folk don’t like this for several reasons!!! )

I hope some of this is of some use although I appreciate I may have covered material beyond ‘simple cues’ and ‘tips & tricks’. In my experience, the issue can be a bit more complicated than it first appears! Good luck with getting your athlete to run at an easy effort pace.