How fast should you run?

Updated: Jan 3

A contentious subject, but one worth addressing. Unfortunately, I believe the pervasive narrative is not only incorrect, but harmful, both in the short term and the long term. It is important for me to point out before going any further, that this article is aimed at the 99% of runners for whom running is not their sole purpose in life, is not the way in which they make a living, and is not something for which they would gladly sacrifice or at least compromise their broader health. In those very rare cases, the opposite of the advice I will give may actually yield the results some runners seek. It, therefore, follows that whilst what I will say will certainly impact performance, better performances may come from doing almost the exact opposite. Bear with me, and hopefully, all will become clear.

There is a resurgence of the idea that lots of slow and steady/Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS)/Zone 2 running should form the basis of your programme, making up some 80% of your runs. This idea was popular through the likes of Phillip Maffetone some 3 or more decades ago, when he used his coached athlete Mark Allen as a proof of concept, and was for much longer before that the main way that elite athletes would train. Although this article seeks to advise the non-elite, it is still worth exploring some of the lesser discussed holes in this approach, even for the elite.

Anecdotally, most successful runners through the '60s, '70s and '80s trained in Zone 2, or low aerobic zones most of the time. This held true by both percentage of training time and number of runs. Data shows that those elite runners when measured had a predominance of Type 1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibres. This, on the face of it, made logical sense. However, as Tim Noakes points out in "Lore of Running" this data may be skewed. He postulates that these runners succeeded by chance, as they were too slow over the middle distances to keep up with the world's best, and ended up as marathoners by default. He suggested, as seems to now be the case, that those who could stay faster for longer would triumph, not just those who were slow and steady. It is now thought that those with a more even balance between Type 1 and Type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibres perform best. Another anecdote worth considering is Emil Zatopek. The Czech runner was most famous for his 5000m and 10000m exploits but famously stepped up to take on his first-ever marathon at the 1952 Olympics, which he won, making him the only runner in history to win all 3 events in the same Olympic games. Of note was his approach to training. He opted for high-intensity, high repetition, interval workouts over slow and steady. He was considered one of the pioneers of this approach. While his times don't hold up in today's athletics world, he still surpassed expectations in his own era and broke several world records using his methods. As I said at the start though, there are also plenty of examples of those who train almost exclusively slow and steady achieving world-class results, so there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach. As we continue to discuss what would be most efficient for the majority though, these anecdotes will hopefully help to highlight that the dogma may not be the best approach, even at the top of the sport!

So why do I think recreational and amateur runners should favour higher intensity running workouts and strength, over longer, steadier runs? It broadly breaks down into three areas, which I've outlined below:

  1. Time efficiency. Even if running slower and longer were to give you personally slightly better results, it still, by definition, takes more time. The time you save can give you time to do the parts of your training programme that you neglect, but very much need. Even assuming a slight drop in performance from a more running-centric approach, this more well-rounded use of your time will likely reduce injury, and ultimately yield better results.

  2. Training diversity. Yes you want to be a better runner, but better than what? Than who? And at what cost. Runners typically have high injury rates, lack strength and flexibility, and see deterioration of bone mineral density, particularly in the upper body. Would you be prepared to accept your running performance improving, but maybe finishing 5% short of your potential, if all of those other factors could be significantly improved? I'd wager yes, especially if you run for you health. It is, after all, the other things that will cause you injuries and problems as you age, whereas a 5% shortfall in your running ability will likely have zero consequences outside of your race times.

  3. Injury risk. The eccentric loading in the upper thigh can reach three times bodyweight under the right conditions. That's a high load to be repeatedly subjecting a muscle to, that otherwise receives no strength training. Add in a lack of flexibility, possibly a lack of core strength, and a little less than optimal posture under fatigue, and it's more a case of when you get injured, rather than if. It's unlikely you'll make any progress with your 5 or 10km times while you're sidelined, whereas the version of you that was lagging a minute behind, can use the time you spend injured to improve her time.