Running slow takes discipline

A couple years ago I learned that I had been running wrong most of my life – too hard and too fast. Slowing down has dramatically changed my understanding of disciplined work.

When I say I was running wrong, I mean that my runs were consistently too fast and too hard. My heart rate was often peaking into my highest zone, typically above 180 beats per minute (bpm) – and my max heart rate is somewhere between 190-200 bpm!

Yet my pace never improved. No matter how much more running I tried to do, or however much faster I did it, my pace hovered around the same place. This was true when I was in high school running cross-country, and true again into adulthood.

In high school, my fastest 5k time (~3.1 miles) was around 18:40. And this was with years of consistent and hard training. After high school, my fastest ever 2 mile time was around ~12:25. No matter how hard I tried to run fast, I just could not improve.

But I thought the only way you could get faster was to run fast. How else would that possibly work?

My thinking on this only changed after I wanted to get into running again in 2017 and I read the book 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald. In a good summary article on the subject, Matt writes:

Why do the fastest runners do most of their running at slow speeds? Because they run a lot, and if they ran a lot and did most of their running at high intensities they would quickly burn out. But you can also turn this answer upside down and say that elite runners run slowly most of the time so that they can run a lot.

To put this in my own words, running slowly not only prevents burn out – tiredness, injuries, and so on – but also allows runners to run more. When I was out there leaving it all on the sidewalk, maxing out my effort on nearly every run, I was setting an invisible upper limit on the amount I could train altogether.

You may not run, but the idea of pace almost certainly applies to you – and in particular to your work life. Burnout sounds familiar to most of us. How many folks have you met who say (and often proudly) that they work 60-, 80-, 100-hour weeks? Or those who boast of sleeping only 3 or 4 hours per night?

Admittedly, physiology varies widely between people. But there are widely published, well-known studies detailing the advantages of 7 to 9 hours per sleep of night for most people. And similar research is cropping up on shorter work hours.

And in running? Your average runners appear to consistently overwork themselves, just like I did. Their training intensity typically breaks down to a split of 45% low intensity, 45% moderate intensity, and 10% high intensity.

But the elites? As the 80/20 Running title implies, elites spend 80% of their time at low intensity, with the remaining 20% split between moderate and high.

As Matt writes:

Why do age-group runners do so much less easy running than elite runners? I think it’s mainly because age-groupers run a lot less, so they naturally push the pace a bit in most of their runs to make them “count” more.

That was me. I needed my runs to count. I thought that I needed to "put in the work", and I thought that meant running hard and running fast. But really I was just burning myself out and stunting my own growth.

In May of 2017, all that changed. I spent around five months of deliberate work training with this 80/20 split; lots of near-ironically slow running to (hopefully) make myself faster.

Early on, this often meant stopping and walking. I wore a heart rate monitor and cursed my Garmin watch, which incessantly crowed at me to slow down. My mile pace was molasses-slow, hovering around 15:00/mi at the start. Yet, as I quite literally listened to my heart, the pace over the following months would come down on its own.

I knew the science, but this looked and felt like magic.

In October, my moment of truth arrived with a 5k race. I finished in first place with a time of 17:37 a full minute faster than my personal record in high school.

The truth is: if you're taking the long view, you need to pace yourself. I love my work. I'm grateful every day for the opportunity to be able to do the work I do. But life is indeed a marathon. Sometimes you need to sprint. Sometimes you need to race. But often you should be moving at marathon pace.

I started running again recently after a break and my body has mostly reset to square one. Once more, I need to pace myself and exert patience. It takes discipline to run slow. And really, it's a surprising amount of discipline when you enjoy running and enjoy running fast.

I wonder sometimes where else in my life I could have applied this lesson.

As a younger Ruby developer – roughly 6 or 7 years ago now – I had mused over the idea of applying to work at Thoughtbot, where I could've worked with one of my now-heroes, Ben Orenstein. What prevented me? Honestly, hubris. I thought I was ready to sprint into building and launching products (I wasn't).

Next time you're burning your candle at both ends or rushing into something with fresh urgency, I encourage you to consider what it would mean for you to slow down. How might it help? How might it work?

And someone please let me know when they make a watch that can monitor whether I'm overdoing it in life. I could always use something else to curse at.


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