"I'm too slow..."
It's 5:30am - the alarm has just gone off. "Mary" quickly realizes yesterday's snow will be packed on the roads and trails resulting in slick conditions. As she musters the will power to get out of bed the reality of today's run begins to dawn on her. It is going to be slow... probably too slow to result in any meaningful training, right? So what's the point?! Are these cold and dark January runs really worth the time and effort?
Perhaps you can relate to "Mary's" struggle by inserting a client of your own...or perhaps you're able to see yourself in this scenario. Undoubtedly you have been asked how 'slow' running will ever result in productive training? After all, if you want to run fast you've got to run fast, specificity of training and all that... That means these slow runs are likely making you slower!
And if you are getting slower the chance of nabbing that elusive BQ (Boston Qualifier) becomes less likely!
To appreciate "Mary's" mental and emotional struggle we have to acknowledge a few foundational assumptions about her training and goals.
Recognizing these influencing factors to "Mary's" training is crucial to helping answer questions, redirecting nervous energy, encouraging further reflective analysis, and reinforcing helpful training skills. Ultimately, in order to answer "Mary's" question, "Is my 'slow' run too slow for productive training" all of these domains must be recognized and leveraged.
Before answering "Mary's" question, let's begin by examining a few professional and age-group athletes as it relates to training and racing paces. Using others who have accomplished a BQ (or other admirable performances) provides an excellent "case study" in structure, planning, and realistic attainment.
Bart Aernouts clocked a 2:45:42 at the 2018 IM World Championships, good for a 6:12 p/mile pace across the 26.2 miles (following a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike). In relation, Bart's easy, aerobic pace (i.e. 'slow running') will vacillate between a 6:54 to 8:03 p/mile pace on average, a difference of 0:42 to 1:51 p/mile pace. It is important to note that Bart's marathon came at the end of a grueling 6+ hrs. of racing rather than a stand alone effort.
In contrast, Molly Seidel executed a superb stand alone marathon effort at the 2020 Toyoko Olympic Games, running 2:27:46 (5:38 p/mile pace) to capture the bronze medal after only starting to pursue the marathon distance 18 months earlier. As is easily tracked on her Strava account, Molly regularly runs 8:03-8:43 p/mile pace for her easier aerobic, warm up and cool down efforts, a difference of 2:25-3:05 p/mile pace off her PR race pace.
While both Molly and Bart are professional athletes, age group athletes demonstrate a similar phenomenon. KB (client working with the author) recently completed the 2022 Chicago Marathon in a new PR of 2:53:23 (6:32 p/mile pace) qualifying for Boston and setting a new mark on a course previously run >10 times. KB's aerobic training pace averages 8:32 to 9:03 p/mile pace, a difference of 2:00-2:31 p/mile slower than their Chicago race pace.
Utilizing these three case studies of professional and age-group athletes gives us a bit of an 'applied' perspective as to what Steven Seiler is discussing in his 80/20 model when he advocates that ~80% of training should be completed at or below your first ventilatory threshold (VT1 - i.e. anaerobic capacity) and ~20% close to or even above your second ventilatory threshold (VT2 - i.e. aerobic capacity). In short, by keeping your easy days easy and your hard days hard runners are better able to distribute the load and stress in a manner that fosters recovery and tissue adaptation.
Too little intensity results in capacity plateau while too much intensity often results in injury and lost training consistency.
Returning to "Mary's" question (i.e."Is my 'slow' running too slow...") in light of these case studies should provide a bit more context and support a "No, your running is not too slow..." answer. However, "Mary's" question and sentiment is not uncommon despite significant evidence that supports a model of slower training. All too often, newer (and seasoned) runners are focused too often on steps W, X, and Y in their pursuit of Z (e.g. Z = BQ). The result is leaving behind proper execution of steps A, B, C, D and many more (e.g. A = consistency, B = recovery, C = strength and mobility training, D = proper fueling).
It is easy to allow an ultimate goal of BQ to lead our daily training confidence astray, allowing our nervous energy to sway our decision making and undermine the training processes. Despite "Mary's" established habits (e.g. setting the alarm clock, clearly defining her goals) it remains easy to fall victim to doubt and disbelief.
Even with a well-written training program and intentional daily habits belief in and by the runner may ebb and flow throughout the training cycle. Partnering with a coach or trusted mentor often provides the necessary catalyst for productive training by redirecting negative thought viruses, reinforcing effective training methods, and providing a steady and guiding hand to an otherwise tumultuous process.
However, note the "often provides" as opposed to "always provides". While easy to dismiss, this is a crucial 'piece to the puzzle'. Not every runner who sets a goal of BQ or other lofty achievement will succeed. Ultimately, self-doubt and a negative narrative (e.g. the story told by the runner to themselves) is often more powerful and convincing.
Actions shape your story!
If you want to accomplish a BQ (i.e. a big, scary, audacious goal) you are going to face adversity and self-doubt. How you face it, and the story you tell yourself in the face of this adversity, will directly impact your eventual success (or failure). The story that wins is the one you rehearse.
Productive training, like the marathon training noted above, is often not perfect nor is it an exact science. Rather, it is the application of scientific principles combined with a recognition of the messy and challenging, rewarding and beautiful lives of countless athletes pursuing big, scary, and audacious goals. After all, if it doesn't make you ask, "Can I do this?" have you really challenged yourself enough for growth to occur?
Wishing you health, wellness, and the ability to endure within your training!
Joel Sattgast is a physical therapist, performance coach, assistant professor of physical therapy, a Dad, husband, and an athlete. All posts are related to evidence, opinions and thoughts regarding various performance and rehabilitation topics.