Train slower, race faster

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Perhaps one of the hardest things to do as an endurance athlete is to accept that making easier sessions really easy is the best way. I have found this from personal experience and from working with many athletes over the years, so I thought it would be useful to write some thoughts and explanations of why and perhaps how to do slower/easier sessions.

So, why train slower to race faster? Training at a slower pace will be less taxing on your system but will still develop your aerobic fitness, it will allow to train more with less fatigue and have the energy to focus on the faster sessions that combine for optimal race performances. Too much faster training can make you slower.

Many endurance athletes do most of their training too fast for various reasons such as peer pressure, feeling that working harder will mean they get the most out of every session, etc. However, backing off and going slow and easy for a significant proportion of your training can make a huge difference, something I have seen many times, to the extent that I am still surprised at times by how much difference it makes.

Why can training slower be better

Training at a slower, easier pace can give many of the benefits of going faster but significantly reduces fatigue on your mind and body. Slower training allows greater training volume, which is very effective at promoting aerobic fitness and leaves the energy to execute harder faster sessions that can make big gains in fitness more effectively.

To be most effective, your training should include the highest volume that allows you to execute the sessions that focus on your specific race needs and avoid overuse injuries. This might seem a bit vague, which it is, since your race needs will be a combination of factors that include the demands of your event compared to your strengths, weaknesses and state of fitness at any given time.

To a large extent, the more training you do, the better you will get but bear in mind that you can still do too much, particularly if you are just starting out and don’t have years of training base to support your efforts. Keep a note of your resting heart rate, your mood and how you feel every day and if things seem to be going downhill, make sure you take a break. It is always better to be a little undertrained than overtrained.

The best way to work this out is to understand how many higher intensity sessions you can manage each week, whilst maintaining the required quality of effort. If you are unsure, it is better to do fewer good quality sessions and more slow/easy training than risk falling into the trap of doing more mediocre sessions where you aren’t hitting the required intensity. If in doubt, start with 2 key sessions each week, perhaps on Tuesdays and Saturdays, then if you feel you are full of energy on Thursday you can introduce another fast session or something slightly harder that still allows you to be recovered for Saturday.

Also, bear in mind that the more you practice doing your sport, the better you get at it and therefore the more efficient you are. This means that you will be faster without working any harder. It is well established by scientific research that more experienced athletes are more skilled and efficient so they need less energy to go at a given speed. It is also the case that being more efficient at slower speeds correlates with being more efficient at faster speeds, so even though you aren’t doing you training at race pace or faster, you are still developing the skills that will make you more efficient when you race.

The best athletes train slow and easy most of the time

Over the years I have been lucky enough to work, train and become friends with many great athletes and what has often surprised me is how easily they do the majority of their training. In many cases, I have found it easy to run or ride with them and hold a conversation, which has occasionally lead me to think I might be just as fast as them. I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case on the occasions I joined in some faster interval sessions or tried to up the pace, these guys are really fast - to the extent that it is sometimes hard to imagine they are even human.

Suffice it to say that learning from such great athletes has been and continues to be a pleasure and is also a constant reminder of how effective it is to get in loads of nice easy miles to form the basis of any endurance training programme.

Polarized Training

This mode of training has become increasingly popular and is generally attributed to Stephen Seiler, who observed how elite athletes train and noticed that the majority of their training is done at low intensity with a small proportion done at higher intensity and very little training in the intermediate area, which is commonly known as tempo or sweetspot training. As a result of numerous studies, he observed that 80% of the sessions were done at an easy pace and only 20% of the sessions were done at high intensity. It is important to note that this is an 80%/20% split between training sessions and not training volume, so if you do 5 sessions a week, that would be 4 easy sessions and one hard session per week.

You would be quite valid in showing concern that elite athletes train a lot more than you may have time or energy to do and therefore this may not be valid for lesser training volumes. However, a further study was carried out to investigate the benefits of this training system on ‘recreational athletes’, the article is titled: ‘Does polarized training improve performance in recreational runners’, by Iker Munoz, Stephen Seiler, et al. The research concludes that ‘polarized training can stimulate greater effects than between-thresholds training in recreational runners’.

This means that focusing on doing a relatively large amount of easier training combined with a smaller amount of harder training at greater than your anaerobic threshold (often referred to as FTP), is likely to prove more effective than spending most of your time working at intermediate efforts such as tempo training. This is, in fact. contrary to what most amateur athletes do.

How slow is slow and easy?

Remember that in training for sport, everything is relative and individual. This means that what is slow and easy for one person could be hard and fast for another, which can be a difficulty when training in groups or with faster training partners.

As a guide, your easy training should be at a pace that you can hold a conversation without getting out of breath. A really effective way to monitor your effort and make sure you aren’t going too hard is to use a heart rate monitor or a power meter and make sure you are staying in zone 2, or 1 if you are a little tired. If you are unsure about training zones, have a look at our blogs on heart rate and power. Don’t be afraid to go slower if you feel tired or start feeling out of breath.

After a few weeks of training at this pace, you will start to have a good feel for the right pace and notice your breathing getting a little faster if you are going too hard. Things to look out for are being a little out of breath, or finding it difficult to talk.

Take your time as you get used to this slower pace, at first you may have to go really slow and easy as your body adapts to the new training. However, after a while you will find that you are naturally getting quicker without working harder and you will also start to see that your other, harder sessions are getting faster as your aerobic fitness builds. I have seen this many times with athletes I work with and in my personal experience, it is always surprising when I convince someone to ease off and just enjoy relaxed training, they can handle more volume with reduced injury risk and they get faster surprisingly quickly.

What if you’re short of time?

Even if you are short of time, it is good to include some slower training. I say this with some caveats, clearly if you are only able to train once or twice each week for an hour or less and these sessions aren’t on consecutive days, so you get good recoveries, you will be best placed working on some race specific goals. However, if you can manage 3 sessions a week and can make at least one of these of an hour or more, it is definitely making one or two of these an easy session that will help you build aerobic fitness and endurance, as well as allowing you to work harder and in a select few of your other sessions.

Another great option if you are short of time is to have a think about how you might be able to fit some shorter sessions into your day. Maybe adding a 20 minute spin in the mornings or using your commute to build some easy miles into your schedule.

Train twice a day to get more volume

A good way to build volume, particularly if you are short of time is to try doing two sessions a day. This may seem odd because it means two lots of changing, showering, etc, but even 20 minutes in the morning can make a big difference to your fitness and getting up a little bit earlier or adding a short session at lunchtime/or before dinner isn’t particularly hard to do once you are in the routine. If you don’t already train in the mornings, getting a short easy workout done, can set you up nicely for the day in many ways.

Research also shows that doing two aerobic sessions a day can maintain the signal that helps your body adapt and get fitter better than just one session, so there are additional benefits to this on top of the extra volume you are able to do.

I am not always a fan of ‘fasted’ sessions, training without eating beforehand, but there is evidence to show that this can give additional benefits to your fitness. If you do try some fasted sessions, treat it as an experiment and make sure you refuel properly afterwards. If it works you can add it to your normal routine.

Use your commute to fit things around your life

A great way to get additional easy miles in is to use your travel to work. With a little thought, it is possible to organise the things you need at work and at home so that you don’t have to weigh yourself down with loads of things to carry. Keep spare clothes and shoes at work and use cloud based file sharing tools if you need to work on things while you are at home.

Bear in mind that you don’t have to do the whole journey as training, if you live a long distance from work you can make use of public transport to adapt things to what you need for your plan and to make sure you don’t over do it. Even if you plan to commute the whole distance, it is worth having an emergency public transport option to fall back on when needed.

Getting to work having got a few miles under your belt can be a great feeling.

Easy sessions have a refreshing effect on your mind

Taking things a little slower also gives you the opportunity to enjoy your training more, take in the views and fresh air and perhaps getting back to why many of us took up endurance sports in the first place.

This isn’t just a nice thing to experience, it is relevant to you getting fitter and faster. If you hammer out hard training all the time it will have a toll on your mind as well as your body, which can have a negative effect on your motivation as well as your ability to work hard when you need to. In contrast, getting out and doing some aerobic miles at a relaxed pace is likely to have a positive effect on your mind and prepare you for when you need to work a bit harder.

Related questions

Do I need to train fast to get fitter? It is necessary to stress your body to make it adapt, so to get fitter you have to do more than your body is used to. You can do this by doing more training or by doing the same training harder and faster. After a period of harder training you need to rest and recover to let your body adapt, if you don’t do this, you won’t get fitter. So, in answer to the question, at first you can get fitter by just doing more but after a while, you probably won’t have time to do more and also, it becomes more effective to do 2 or 3 faster training sessions each week to stimulate fitness at the intensities you will be racing at.

Can I do too much training? Definitely, you can easily do too much and it is important to avoid this because you can make yourself very ill and unable to train or exercise if you over do it. If you find you are getting unusually tired, finding it harder to maintain your usual pace or getting unusually grumpy for a few days in a row then it is probably time to take a break. Don’t be afraid to rest, resting is when our bodies adapt and build back stronger so that we can perform faster in the future.

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JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

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