One of the principal lessons in distance training over the years came in the most unexpected way. I had moved out to the Philadelphia area for work when I was 23 years old, and went looking for a group of running partners in the area. Fortunately there was a shop called The Runner’s Edge about three blocks from my house in Paoli.
The shop had a running team composed of about 20 guys. Women’s running had not yet taken off the way it operates today, but there were a few gals that joined us for occasional training runs.
Feeling my oats
The club had many very good runners. Several had 10K times in the low 29:00 range. My PR at the time was 32:20. Given the disparity in ability, I thought it would be a lot of work to keep up with them.
That first run with the group I started out at 6:30 pace thinking they’d soon pass me by. But when I looked back and saw them far behind, it startled me. “Huh,” my grand little ego thought for a moment. “They must not be as good as they say.”
So I slowed and let them catch up. “What’s up with you?” one of them asked. “Why are you starting out so fast?”
I stammered for an answer. Someone in the group chuckled a little. “Chill out dude. We’ve got 20 miles to run. And at mile 17, we’re going to pick it up to 5:00 pace. If you can still go fast then, have at it.”
Fast results from going slow
So we fell into 8:00 pace and trotted along talking and joking. And when mile 17 came around, the group increased its pace and finished with a time that for many runners would have been a PR for 5K. And that, I learned, is how good runners really trained.
Within a month my PR dropped another 20 seconds in the 10k. And by the next year I had taken a minute off my time at 31:10. All because I had the courage to go slow sometimes.
Is going slow a forgotten art? I don’t think so. It’s more likely true these days that runners and cyclists don’t do enough of the other extreme. Fast interval work and hard, criterium-like rides are critical aspects of getting faster. You can’t skip those steps either, or you will never gain in racing speed.
So those are the balancing points of training. One must also still go slowly enough in training to build a deep endurance base. Then you build off that with speed to get faster in racing. It’s that simple.
Yesterday my body demanded that I go slowly because I’m increasing my training volume. So I tripped along at just over 10:00 pace, which I used to consider something less than running. To be honest, I’ve always been something of a running snob about pace. But that was always insecurity, not wisdom. When you’re trying like heck to get faster, especially as a young endurance athlete, it doesn’t seem to make sense to go slowly. What we wind up doing is not good for the body. We do a pace that is “semi-hard” everyday. Not slow enough to build baseline endurance, but not fast enough to get real speed benefits from the workout. That’s a dumb middle ground.
Rolling through time
In cycling that’s almost always what I do. It’s a really bad habit. But when you get home and find your average pace is 17 mph and you consider that too slow because you see others riding at a faster pace on Strava (or whatever) there’s this weird driving force that makes you want to go faster. So this spring I did not use either Strava or a cyclometer. I just rode. If I felt good and went faster, all fine. But if I needed to ride 10 miles into the wind at whatever pace I could manage, I did that too.
Going half fast all the time is a bad habit in all phases of life. I mean, having sex is not a good thing if all you do is jump on and pound away at the same old pace every time you have at it. Seriously, sometimes it’s really good to take it slow. In the words of the group Foghat… Slow ride….take it easy…I’m in the groove, the rhythm is right…Move to music… we can go all night…
There’s a lesson in that.
It paid to ride the bike at a sane pace while touring last weekend in Wisconsin. My girlfriend’s bike was busted and her loaner didn’t fit, so we were forced to ride the Ironman loop course at a much slower pace than usual. So I did what was best and just took in the scenery. It was enjoyable and we still covered 50 miles of very hilly terrain.
Too often it is a “head-down” approach we take to riding in such beautiful places. So I studied the hills and valleys. Took a look up the road and behind as well. I felt the terrain as we climbed, and trained rather than strained.
Toward the end a rainstorm came over us and we got a little wet. So we put on the brakes before reaching the downhill sections because our bikes would have hurtled ahead without us if we had not done so. I laughed at the water from my girlfriend’s back tire rooster-tailed into my face. It felt good. We were riding at whatever pace we could find. On the flats we went a little faster. And that was that.
Working it out
I told her, “You rode an equivalent to 80 miles in that 50. Without a bike fit you were working much harder than normal.” For a while she wasn’t having fun. But once she realized there was nothing to do about it we all relaxed a little and rode through the gathering summer heat until the rain cooled us off. It was almost like we were standing still and the road was passing under us like one of those movie scenes where the characters are in the car and the road is being projected on a screen behind us.
Stick to the plan
It takes courage to go slow sometimes. So you need to plan it into your schedule and stick by your goals. Ride 50 or 100 miles and don’t try to push it. Let that four-miler be your recovery day. Your legs and body need it. Swim and don’t try to kill yourself. Practice the finer points of your stroke and think about that body rotation and how it propels you through the water.
Going slow is really a matter of getting over yourself. Our precious egos make us think that ramming along is making us better every day, but really, that’s not the case. If you must, turn off the Strava and tune into the day.
Forget about segments or kudos. Like so many I fall for that crap on occasion too. On Tuesday or Wednesday night I had a really good run with an average pace of 8:00 per mile. It felt great, but when I looked at Strava and saw all the people I follow had run faster, I was bummed out. Suddenly my 7:30 mile and 24:00 5K in the middle didn’t look so good.
And how stupid is that? It’s also being too chicken to admit that perhaps I’m not the runner I once was. So you see, it takes courage to go slow sometimes. Because it takes courage to appreciate who you really are. And that might not be who you think you are.