Slow down, to speed up

I want to tell you a story about a foolish young athlete I once knew.

This guy came into the sport about 20 years ago with a very limited endurance background. In his first year he actually did pretty well, this included running a 35min 10k off the bike in only his 2nd attempt at Olympic distance. This was pretty good for someone who considered anything over 200m more like cross country in school. He could also swim a bit but biking was very new to him. There was definite potential for this athlete but over the next 4 years his training and performances went backwards. This was mainly due to a succession of injuries and frequent illness.

It was a time of huge frustration for him because this athlete was prepared to work hard, really hard and showed a tremendous level of commitment to improving at this sport he had fallen in love with, he was an all in kinda guy. What he couldn’t work out for so long was why after such a successful first year did things take a turn for the worse?

The main problem with this athlete was he wasn’t really listening to the advice being given, he thought he knew different. He also thought by working much harder (than was prescribed) he could actually make the faster gains he was searching for. This athlete was pretty ego driven and ultra competitive but lacked the maturity, foresight and common sense to listen to the great advice he was being given. It was a recipe for disaster and the next few years proved it.

You might have guessed by now, that athlete was me.

In hindsight it’s great to be able to look back with a wealth of experience and be able to clearly see where I went wrong. Pretty much everything my old coach told me was right on the money. I will never forget those 5 years because they helped form the strong foundations of who I became as a Coach. I made every made mistake possible and then repeated them time and time again before finally coming to my senses. I remember that moment as if it was yesterday because I said to myself “you need to change and do things differently because clearly what you are doing isn’t working, a big change is needed”.

What was needed was a complete mindset shift in the way I was thinking.

It wasn’t until many years later that the legendary coach Brett Sutton once said to me:

“Julian, you’ll be able to put your athletes into 3 categories as you move forwards as a coach”…

  1. The ones that listen and do well
  2. The ones that think they listen but don’t
  3. And the idiots who will just waste your time & theirs

The last one tickled me but I like to think that I was definitely more of a number 2 than a number 3 but maybe you need to ask my old Coach!

It took me 5 years to reach number 1. That doesn’t need to be the case for you.

The reason for me writing this today is to highlight the main reason where I went wrong. There were a few factors but by far and away the number one reason that inhibited my progress was doing my easier endurance type work way too fast. I also completely ignored the fact that I was tired and still went too fast for my easier work. I would say looking back I was overestimating this pace by as much as 15-20%, especially in relation to running. I was constantly training in that grey area where I thought faster was better, sound familiar ? It should because a high percentage of you out there are making the same mistake everyday.

The main reason for this is athletes make the mistaken presumption that – surely it can’t be affective if it feels that easy? This is almost as misplaced as the no pain, no gain theory. Whilst some training should be hard a great percentage needs to feel very easy. I would say roughly in the 80% easy/20% harder range.

What athletes fail to grasp is that the metabolic changes and improvements you make when training at these lower paces are huge. You might not get that ‘exercise high’ when you train at these paces but they certainly will form the form strong foundation that all of your overall endurance fitness sits upon. If this is weak and underdeveloped, everything that sits above it is also weak. The better your body is at converting body fat and oxygen to usable energy the better your performance will be, that’s what the easier work does. It also helps aid recovery between harder sessions so you get a double bonus if done correctly.

“One of the greatest difficulties I have had in persuading coaches and athletes to accept my system is that the majority have been chained to the principles of interval training, which emphasise anaerobic interval training or repetition work as the MOST important phase of a training programme. As far as I am concerned, it is the LEAST important.” (from “Running with Lydiard: Greatest Running Coach of All Time” by Arthur Lydiard, Garth Gilmour)

It isn’t rocket science but most triathletes seem to think this doesn’t apply to them and they are different. They think assume that faster is better as it will make more use of their limited training time. Worse still many don’t even seem to know they are making this mistake. Then when you tell them they are making this mistake they still go out and do the same thing over and over again.

It’s at that point you become ‘athlete Number 3’ and all hope is lost.

If anything training needs balance, especially when you consider most age group athletes are training in 3 disciplines, they also work a 40-70 hour a week. If you consider that most pro triathletes don’t work a 40-70 hour week still follow the 80/20 rule, you’ll see why it’s even more important for age group athletes to do it. Once this gets out of sync your body just can’t absorb that level of training combined with life and work on top of it. But what you will do is put yourself more at risk of developing deep fatigue, injuries and illness. It’s my belief that this is the number one reason for underperformance in both training and racing.

Swimming and running seem to be the sports most affected by this, although I have seen this with biking too. It never ceases to amaze me that a lot of triathletes don’t quite grasp the concept of how your technique for both swimming and running is different when you go slower and when you go faster, mistakenly presuming it should be the same. When you swim at the correct easy pace your stroke will be longer with more glide/extension to it and the opposite will be true when you start to speed up, the mechanics and timing have to change to allow for this. The same with running, when you go slower it will be more shuffle like with a lower cadence and when you speed up it will flow with more rhythm and with a higher cadence. The problem I see is triathletes seem want to seem to spend all their time fixed in this ‘sweet spot’ where it feels good and rhythmical where their cadence or stroke rate is actually the same (because surely it can’t feel right to feel that slow). There has to be a clear distinction between pace and technique to allow you to speed up and slow down, it should never feel the same. 

The reason this feels so alien to many athletes is because they are going a little bit fast most of the time and they haven’t allowed their body to get used to it. If I had a penny for every time and athlete has told me it doesn’t feel right I’d be a very wealthy man, even when this backed up by clear data that is showing that they are going too fast. The number of athletes I see training at or above race pace when they think they are going easy is astounding and slightly worrying.

Also for any of you Ironman athletes out there if you think the run is anything more than a slow shuffle at the end of the race you are very much mistaken. So get used to this slow style now because you will be much more efficient with it on race day.

Let’s look at some very interesting statistics in relation to some of the world’s best runners that might shock you:

Alex Yee (British Junior elite triathlete/ National 10K record holder)

  • Stand alone 10k PB (27mins 51 secs / 2:47/km)
  • Easy pace runs (4:20 – 4:50/km or 43:20 – 48:20 10k pace)

Joel Filliol’s elite training squad 

  • Containing ITU World Champion Mario Mola & Katie Zafares 
  • Mario can run 29mins off the bike for 10k (2:54/km), Katie can run 33mins off the bike for 10k (3:18/km)
  • Easy pace runs for squad members (4:30/km – 5min/km or 45-50min 10k pace)  

Jocelyn McCauley (Pro Ironman athlete & multiple Ironman winner)

  • Ironman marathon run PB: 2hours 58mins (4:13/km)
  • Easy pace runs (5:35/km or 55min 10k pace)

Eluid Kipchoge (Marathon World Record holder)

  • Marathon run PB: 2hrs 1min 39 secs (2:52/km)
  • Easy pace runs (some of it as starting as low as 5:45-6min/km or 55min 10k pace building to no more than 4:13/km pace or 42min 10k pace)

All of this data above is widely published online for anyone to read. The last one is perhaps the most interesting because here you have one of the fastest runners in the world who runs some of his slower pace work the slowest. Even I had to get this confirmed by our Pro Triathlete Emily Loughnan who has spent time in Kenya running with Kipchoge and many of the fastest marathon runners in the world. Here’s her take:

“Each day I would join some of the world’s fastest marathon runners for their early morning run. The pace resembled more of a shuffle as the groups ran bunched tightly on each other’s heels, with the same focussed expression on their faces. It was always an hour of silence as if the task at hand required a deep concentration to keep the pace slow and really focus on form and feel”. 

The next mistaken presumption I hear is that surely the reason these athletes run more slowly is because of such huge training volumes combined with more high intensity work? That might be true to a certain extent, but consider as age groupers you have to add a 40-70 hour of work to your weekly training schedule that these guys don’t have. It might not be direct training but it’s your number 1 fatigue and stress builder, this all inhibits recovery.

Statistics will also show that upwards of 80%+ of triathletes are injured in relation to running. Is it any surprise when you consider most of the time they are training too hard too often on bodies that are usually not strong enough to cope with the load placed on them. This is mainly due to poor biomechanics and a lack of strength in the key supporting muscles and joints. It’s also being caused by the fact that most of you sit down at a desk all day wreaking havoc on your posture.

Also consider the fact that many athletes choose to place little value on doing strength & conditioning, then when you do you follow a plan that is completely unspecific to what your body needs. Your plan needs to be tailor made to you because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so that cookie-cutter program you are looking for on the internet just wont come any close to what your body will need.

Then combine this with the fact that many of you don’t get anywhere near enough sleep hours or recovery time in between training sessions to properly absorb the work you are putting in we start to see a completely different picture starting to appear. That picture shows us that it’s just as important for you to do easy work easy as it is for some of the worlds best athletes.

Interestingly out of all of the athletes above it is Jocelyn that has by far and away the lowest running volume. She kindly provided me with the information on her run training below:

  • Total run volume: 5-6 hours per week, max 7 in biggest weeks. 
  • Average run pace: 4:58 – 5:35/km (49-56min 10K pace)
  • Consisting of: 1 x long easy run, 1 x speed session, 1 x longer reps, hills or 1km efforts & easy runs

This is much less than half of the 120 miles Kipchoge would do on a weekly basis.

The next question should be how do I work out what my easy pace and long run pace should be? This is actually very simple if you can work out what your current stand alone 10k PB is. If you don’t know just use previous race results to get an estimation of where is might be. Work out the pace per km for the 10K time then add 1min 30secs – 1min 50 secs per km to this, you then have a good sensible range for where your easy endurance type work is. It’s also crucial that your long run be at the easiest pace. See example below:

  • 45min 10k PB
  • Pace per km = 4.38
  • Add 1.3 – 1.5 = 6.08-6.28/km (Easy pace running)

If you get this right, it will:

  • Improved your aerobic efficiency
  • It will decrease the risk of injury
  • It will help enable a stronger immune system
  • It will help improve recovery in between sessions
  • It will reduce leg soreness and muscle fatigue
  • It will allow you go harder, deeper and stronger in the key sessions that matter
  • Contribute to making you a faster athlete (yes believe it!)

It’s only a win win situation.

So the message is clear if you are an athlete that has experienced huge frustration with your running and a real lack of progress, start taking a closer look at your easy run speed when out there training. You might be able to find something in it that will help you. There are of course can be many other factors that you might need to bring into the equation but for me this is the best starting point to build a sensible sustainable progressive run plan around.