Slow Down to Get Faster


You’ve been running for a number of years and PB’s seem to be a thing of the past, so you tell yourself that “Age is catching up with me,” but a simple change to your training pace can set you back on the road to new PB’s. – BY RAY ORCHISON

When we first start running, we normally notice huge improvements in performance quite quickly, and with minimal effort, but as we age in running terms, and become stronger, faster and more experienced, most runners begin to find that improvements become smaller, and a much greater effort is required to better previous times. In most cases this is not because our training deteriorates, but rather because as we improve, we move closer and closer to our own personal maximum performance level.

The question then is what do we need to do to push new levels of performance once we reach this stage of our running career? The answer may lie in polarised training, which means to train at either a low or a high intensity, with very little training time spent in-between. This is by no means a new concept, but one that is often ignored by veteran runners, because as we become more experienced, we often fall into the trap of thinking that to get faster we need to train faster… all the time. While the first part of that statement is true, the second part, “all the time,” is not.

When the gap between our easy run pace and our fast interval or race pace is small, we find ourselves in no-man’s land, where we don’t run slowly and we don’t run fast, and end up with poor, sub-potential performances. The way to correct this is with polarised training: On easy days you run slower and on quality days you run faster. In other words, you need to get slower (on easy days) in order to get faster during your race.

The easiest way to ensure that you don’t get stuck in no-man’s land is to train with a heart rate monitor to keep your training primarily in two zones. Zone 1 is the easy zone, where you should do the bulk of your training, somewhere between 70-80% of your weekly mileage at between 60-70% of max heart rate. The second is zone 3, somewhere between 15-20% of your weekly mileage at between 80-100% of heart rate. Zone 2 is no-man’s land, which is run between 5-15% of your weekly total and at a heart rate between 70-80%.

(If you don’t use a heart rate monitor, run on perceived effort. Easy runs should feel easy and you should be able to have a conversation, while zone 3 is the anaerobic zone and should feel very hard. Interval sessions on the track or time trials would fall into this zone.)

If you’ve never done hard, fast sessions, then gradually start by introducing one session per week into your training schedule. I suggest that you start with four to eight short, fast hill repeats. These will push you into zone 3, but are not as hard on the body as a fast track session. Hill repeats are an introduction to track work and help strengthen your body to better handle the stress of a track session. Once you’re stronger, then gradually introduce a track session, like 4x200m at 3km race pace with a 200m slow recovery jog between repeats.

As you get stronger and faster, start to increase the number of repetitions and pace. With more time spent in zones 1 and 3, and less time spent in zone 2, you should start to see some improvement in your performance.