To run fast, you should also run slowly
Lessons from the past
The legendary Arthur Lydiard was the coach of Peter Snell in the 1960’s, who become the greatest middle distance runner of his era. If we look at the methods Lydiard used in training Snell, it is very clear that his philosophy was to develop all components of an athlete’s physiology. Snell was reported to run very long runs, even running as far as a marathon during his training. It is important to mention that Peter Snell raced the 800m and it was unheard of at the time for middle distance athletes to run such long distances in training. The purpose of these long easy runs was to develop the aerobic system completely. The unusual training method paid off, resulting in Snell becoming the World champion, world record holder at the 800m and best middle distance athlete of his generation.
Current research has confirmed the wisdom in Lydiard’s approach. It has recently been shown that after roughly 75 seconds or 600m of all-out effort, an athlete starts to use predominantly the aerobic system to produce energy to the working muscles. At maximal intensity over 3000m, more than 80% of the total energy system contribution comes from the aerobic system. This suggests that even in athletes who specialise in the 3000m, at least 80% of the training should be focused on developing the aerobic system. In other words, more than 80% of their training should be done below the threshold, at intensities that are easier.
Will easy running make you fast? Yes and No, but mainly no. To run fast, you need to train to run fast. Running slowly will never give you the ability to run faster, but it will give you the ability to slow down less as fatigue starts to play a role, so because you slow down less, you are faster, but your base speed will not be improved by running easy.
How big is your cup?
How fast you can run over short distances (400m to 1000m) indicates your potential, or your performance ceiling. I like to use the analogy of a cup; the faster you are, the bigger your cup. Aerobic training fills this cup to reach your potential. A small container won’t become bigger, by filling it with more water. Once it is full, its potential has been reached. So, for the vast majority of athletes out there, the biggest improvement will come from working at creating a bigger cup, in other words, from running fast. But your potential will only be realised by filling up that cup with easy training.
We find 4 main types of athletes:
1) Small, full cup (slow athletes who run high mileage)
2) Small, empty cup (slow athletes who run low mileage)
3) Big, empty cup (fast athletes who run low mileage)
4) Big, full cup (fast athletes who run high mileage)
So, if you are training your performance every week with intense and tempo runs, you need to also fill the cup with easy runs to increase your aerobic stimulation and maximise the gains you get from training to run faster. The longer your goal event is, the more important these aerobic runs become.
Now that we have looked at the performance side of aerobic running, here are some other key benefits to doing those easy runs:
1) They can be done socially, making running more enjoyable
2) Easy running further develops the tendons and bones
3) Easy running, if not too long, can aid recovery from the harder sessions
4) Easy running improves running economy, both mechanically and metabolically
5) Easy running adds valuable mileage with the least possible risk of injury
Enjoy your easy runs. They are very important!