‘Learning from your mistakes is smart, learning from the mistakes of others is better’.

This is my rough recollection of a quote that struck me as being wise. Well, today, it’s confession time. I’m going to share the biggest mistake I made as a novice runner with the hope that you can learn from it and save your precious time and energy.

Through most of my 20s, I identified as a strength athlete. I lifted weights and

enjoyed being a big strong guy. Back then, I saw running as a nice complement to my strength training. It got me active outside the gym, helped control my weight and made me feel athletic.

The problem was that almost every run was the same. I’d lace-up my shoes, put on my headphones and try to set a new 5k personal best. I only had one speed – full speed. And honestly, I wasn’t even that fast!

When the weather was nice, I’d manage 2-3 runs per week and far less than that during the cold winter months. If life got busy, I would drop the running and only do strength training. If I wanted to lose some fat, I would bump it up to 3+ sessions per week (but injuries usually forced me to stop before I hit my target weight).

In hindsight, I cannot believe I stubbornly persisted with this running ‘plan’ for years.

My biggest mistake was always training at full intensity. When I ran, I ran hard. The problem with this is 1) it put way too much stress on my body and I spent too much time either injured or recovering from injury and 2) I never developed my aerobic base, and full-out running will only help you progress so far.

Fast forward a bunch of years, I’m older (objectively) and wiser (subjective). I’ve adjusted my training and continue to improve and set new personal bests in my 40’s.

What made all the difference?

I learned to go slow.

I was a victim of the HIIT and no-pain no-gain mentality. While there is a time for intensity, constantly operating at full effort will not serve you over the long run. As a novice runner looking to become faster, we need to slow down and take the time to develop our aerobic system. (As a refresher, the aerobic system provides most of our body’s energy during low intensity activity.)

When you focus on training the aerobic system, you’re going to realize some very important adaptations including:

  • Increased stroke volume – You increase the amount of blood your heart can pump in one beat, which helps deliver more oxygen to fuel your working muscles.
  • Increased blood plasma volume – This means there is more blood in your system which helps the heart fill faster between beats and increases stroke volume.
  • Increased mitochondria density and function – The mitochondria are like little power plants within each cell, taking in oxygen, fat and carbs and producing the ATP which you need for muscle contractions. More ATP = More power.
  • Increased oxidation of fat during rest and sub-maximal exercises – By spending time training at low intensity, you teach your body how to use fat as a fuel. This has great benefits for long-duration events or for someone looking to shed excess body fat.

These adaptations are fundamental and foundational. If you want to become a better runner you cannot skip the long, slow aerobic sessions. It does take a long time for the above changes to occur. Fortunately, the lower stress of slow running lets you accumulate lots of running time while minimizing the strain on your body.

So how ‘slow’ is slow. Well, you want to be operating near your aerobic threshold. This is also known as your Zone 2 heart rate. At our clinic we use a VO2 test to determine your exact heart rate zones. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can use the Maffetone Method to estimate your zones:

Step 1: Subtract your age from 180.

Step 2: Modify this number by selecting from the options below:

  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.), you’ve recently gone through a bout of chronic overtraining, or are on regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If your waist measurement is more than half of your height, subtract another 5.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

Performing this quick calculation will give you your heart rate in beats per minute, corresponding approximately to your aerobic threshold (the upper limit of your zone 2).

If your new to running or have never spent time with this type of training. I would suggest you spend most of your training on Zone 2 workouts (60-70% of total training time) and mix in intervals or faster runs to keep things interesting.

Don’t be surprised that working out in heart rate zone 2 will have you plodding along at a leisurely pace or you may need to take walk breaks to bring your heart rate back down into Zone 2. As your aerobic system strengthens, you will be able to hold a better pace while staying in Zone 2.

Commit to this type of training for 3-4 months and let me know how it goes. I bet you’ll be surprised how much faster you can become by focusing on going slow.