Want to run faster? Slow down then!
It doesn't make sense but that's what the science says. I talk to Matt Fitzgerald, bestselling author of 80/20 Running about why everyday citizen runners need to run slow to run faster.
Whether you’re talking about ancient, barefooted South Americans running further than Courtney Dauwalter on a daily basis or the Japanese niko niko jogging method of focusing on smiling while running, as pioneered by Hiroaki Tanaka, ideas about running slowly have always persisted.
In 2016 Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running was released. A best-seller then and still no.13 in the charts, it’s an insightful and incisive guide to using the science of slowing down as a method for reaching your peak running performance.
“Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower,” it says. It’s counter-intuitive but hear me (him) out.
Fitzgerald’s book worked off an observation by Dr Stephen Seiler - an American sports scientist who moved to Norway to study elite athletes and found that just 20% of their training was at a high intensity. 80% of their runs were at a low intensity. Nothing in the middle.
Now, as millions more runners are regularly pulling on their shoes following the pandemic-led running boom, the slow running movement has taken hold of the world again.
In this, the second article in this mini-series about slow running, I talk to Matt Fitzgerald about running.
Can you define slow?
“Slow and fast are not even the right terms. What we're talking about is low and high intensity. Not everyone can run fast by Kipchoge standards, but everyone can run at high or low intensity by their own standards. The principles are universal but how they apply depends on the individual.”
If you’re new to your running practice or you’re older (like me), a low intensity run will feel truly slow compared to someone younger or someone who’s been training consistently for longer, but slow is only relative to you.
Comparing your pace to anyone else might be the most disadvantageous mindset you can carry. I’ve written before about running for happiness and for health, but that desire for speed - for more - can sometimes never be sated. Not without that feeling of achievement of knowing you’re faster.
But faster than what?
The benchmark should be yourself. Take the same route as you did last time. Can you go faster this time? That’s the challenge. Not beating someone else. You have different lives with infinite variables as to why they have more or less time to train than you.
So how, then, can you get faster? By running slowly 80% of the time. Sorry, running at a low intensity for 80% of the time.
This kind of polarized training has a different balance for every athlete, but the sheer volume of low intensity training will train your respiratory system to work more efficiently and your slow twitch muscle fibers, which will maximize your fitness, allowing you to run with less effort at higher intensity runs, with the ultimate result of improving your performance in endurance running.
What’s the biggest hurdle for an amateur runner?
“The average recreational runners - even competitive recreational runners - are spending about 50% of their weekly training time at moderate intensities. It's not even close to 80/20.”
“If you look at elite runners, none of them are caught in that moderate intensity rut. When the lens was pivoted over to the recreational population, virtually no one was doing the 80/20 thing.”
“One major reason is that if you are an elite female marathoner, who can run a 2h25m marathon, your low intensity range is huge. Everything between 13:00 min/mile (8:00 min/km) up to 6:30 min/mile (4:00 min/km) is low intensity, so you almost have to go out of your way to run too fast.”
“Others can cross that threshold from low to moderate intensity at 12:30 min/mile. Any faster and they're going too fast for an easy day, so they have to be much more intentional about it. The nice thing is, if you do the 80/20 thing and stick with it, you get faster, so you're not stuck, you know, at those 12:30 miles forever, but it takes some discipline and commitment.”
When everyone’s version of low intensity is different, what metric can we use to measure it?
A common way for the recreational/amateur runner is measuring heart rate. If you have a running watch with a heart rate monitor, look at running in Zones 1 and 2. That is 35-80% of your maximum heart rate and is also known as aerobic running. It’s slower than your marathon pace.
The thing about heart rate training is that everyone will have a different pace/speed at the same heartrate. Everybody’s personal idea of “running slowly” is different. For me, a Zone 2 run is maximum 10:00 min/mile. My natural pace - that moderate intensity rut - sits in Zone 3 and 4. That’s where you don’t get those gains!
Another available method is to measure your power output or wattage while you run. It’s the most accurate measurement of your exertion, so you can adjust your effort and pace in real-time, but that involves another piece of expensive paraphernalia.
There are organic (free) ways to gauge your intensity. Can you talk in full sentences or even have lengthy conversations while running? You’re most likely running at a low intensity. That’s certainly the most accessible method, if not the most accurate.
The talk test is the one I like to use. I’ve been trying to slow my runs down - 80% of them, anyway - for the past year. I’ve found running at a low intensity quite difficult. I really had to think about slowing down. At first it felt like I was dragging my feet backwards and clomping around. Running with a natural cadence at a slower pace was and is difficult, but I’ve managed it.
The result is I’m the fittest (and fastest) I’ve been in years. I also don’t feel completely wiped when I get home.
One of the ways I have done this successfully is by joining my run club for their weekend slow runs and chatting. The number of times I’ve talked about the hottest new pizza joints at 7am making everyone hungry… I think they’d prefer I just talk to myself.
What is your key to running forever?
“I found the mental game endlessly fascinating. No matter how much time passed, I could keep getting better and better at discovering the best way to train or to figure out ways to squeeze out just a little bit more improvement, despite the fact that I was getting older. That was incredibly intellectually stimulating for me. I mean, I set a PB at 10k when I was 49.”
Forever wasn’t to be for Matt, though. He was one of the very first Americans to contract COVID-19 and subsequently developed a severe case of Long COVID, curtailing any extended periods of cardio exercise.
What’s next then? Coaching.
“When you realize that tragedy has befallen you, you have to accept it, because what's the alternative?”
With acceptance, however, came a search for what’s next and he decided to finally take the plunge as a coach. Moving to Flagstaff, Arizona, he opened the residential Dream Run Camp to coach runners and help them reach their potential.
Having authored 30 books, he still takes time to write every day but he looks at his new lifestyle as a silver lining to the Long COVID-shaped cloud.
“I always knew a lot of great coaches and I knew they had something special in them that I lacked. They were just so giving - to a point that wasn't always good for them. They’d lie awake at night if one of their athletes was struggling. I’d look at them and then look at myself and think, ‘Man, I could never think of someone else's running as being that important.’”
“When I lost the ability to be an athlete myself, a lot of people wanted me to coach them and I figured, ‘Well, there's also a lot of bad coaches out there and I can, at least, be above average.’ So all of my energy, passion and knowledge is now channeled into the athletes.”
As a coach, what tip do you have for a beginner runner?
“For the absolute beginner who isn't even hooked on the sport yet? Put enjoyment first. The only way you're still going to be doing this in five years is if you fall in love with it and do things in a way that makes it maximally enjoyable for you.”
“If you prefer running with people, run with people. If you prefer running with music, run with music. If you like to mix in cross-training and that keeps the running exciting, go ahead. You gotta do things your way so that spark turns into a flame.”
How have you found joy in running? This whole blog/newsletter is dedicated to highlighting all the different ways to enjoy the sport, but I’m always keen to hear your experiences. Whatever your method, I know they’ll be enlightening to someone.
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
I feel like desire to join my poetry quest is dwindling, but someone commented positively last week on Instagram, so I’m keeping on. (Post yours below. Go on.)
Banged my knee Monday
So hard, couldn’t run Tuesday
Watch out for bedframes
Maybe this is where that joke about silly young men just having mattresses on the floor comes from. Maybe the reason is protection against clumsiness! My knee still hurts.