Updated: Nov 6, 2019
Today I ran 7 miles for the first time in a long time. Long story short, I'm making a slow comeback from a long period of health issues which included (but were not limited to) nagging injuries from many many collegiate miles, extreme fatigue, burnout from previous work, and anxiety. The comeback is not quite calculated because, for the first time, I'm really listening. I've been forced to. I don't want to arrive back at the extreme low of my body (and my mind) saying "NO!" I'm on no schedule as I let my body call the shots (and the body battery on my Garmin!).
I'm also doing things different this time. I used to run 7 miles in 49 minutes, more or less. Today, I ran 7 miles in 77 minutes. I am not so out of shape that I NEED to run 4 minutes/mile slower. I would guess, if I ran the same effort as I used to, I would probably currently be running a 9 minute/mile, which would put me at 63 minutes for the run.
Why, for the love of all things running, would I want to run that much slower?!
To answer this, I pose another question. Which effort is harder? 7 miles in 63 minutes or 7 miles in 77 minutes?
There isn't really a correct answer here. One is faster but shorter, the other slower but longer. Scientifically speaking, however, the faster run has NO greater physiological benefit for me than the slow run. In addition, the faster run increases my risk of injury and decreases my ability to recover for the runs that really count, such as speed work, hills, and threshold runs. In other words, the slower I run my slow runs (which should take up about 80% of a training week) and the more recovered I am in general, the faster I can run my fast runs (20% of a training week). This, my fellow runners, is how I (and you) will get faster.
On top of this, the slow run is a test of mental stamina like no other. It requires patience and mindfulness, attention to breath, as well as the swallowing of a huge amount of pride (for most of us). It also improves your overall muscle endurance, running economy, and efficiency. It's similar to giving yourself a really big fuel tank. We can add the horsepower later.
Think of it this way. You may have a goal of running a marathon. If your 20 mile run takes you 2 hours and 30 minutes, you may find that during your race, the remaining 6 miles are very challenging. After all, you haven't been in this territory before. However, if you plan to have your 20 mile run take 3 hours, even though you may run much faster in the race, you have now trained your body to be moving for longer. You mind is better equipped, as are your muscles.
Last but not least, this very slow training maximizes your potential to burn fat as fuel. When we burn fat as fuel efficiently, we are less likely to run through our carbohydrate stores, especially earlier in the race. What does this mean? NO WALL!
In summary, slow runs let us run our fast runs faster so that we can race faster. Slow runs build mental stamina, muscular endurance, and running economy. Slow runs improve our ability to burn fat as fuel, allowing us to run longer without hitting the wall. Finally, slow runs will decrease your overall risk of injury and illness, keeping you healthy for a lifetime of running!!