Do you want to feel better, run faster and have more fun? Let’s be honest — who doesn’t? Fortunately, it turns out that there’s a way to have all three! David and Megan’s aptly named coaching group, SWAP (Some Work, All Play) does exactly what it promises — celebrates the process of running while keeping things enjoyable. Both incredible athletes in their own right — David is a two-time national champion and Megan a four-time national champion — the SWAP team boasts an impressive cast list of athletes including former CCC winner Clare Gallagher and 2-time world’s toughest mudder champion Amelia Boone. Proof that David and Megan’s counterintuitive philosophy, that slowing down is the key to speeding up, really does work!
The goal of workouts isn’t to prove fitness. It’s to improve fitness.
That line went around running Twitter recently (like regular Twitter, but with more photos of post-run brunch), and it’s a great summary of how to think about your workouts. All too often, people think the best way to run their workouts is to go as hard as you can until you set every single Strava PR and get tons of crowns. It barely counts if a friend doesn’t comment with a bicep emoji (or at least a fire emoji). Not only is that approach often worse for health and love of running . . . it’s probably worse for your fitness too.
That seems to make no sense at all, we get it. Why would doing that 4-mile tempo a minute faster be worse for fitness? That is ludicrous! Unfathomable! Cats and dogs living together, MASS HYSTERIA!
It’s all about how the body actually adapts to training stimuli. Going faster on workouts may even make you slower over time. Heck, it kind of seems like our physiology is playing a trick on us, as if there are billions of little Ashton Kutchers hiding in our mitochondria waiting to tell us we’ve been Punk’d. Here are four reasons why you should think about pacing at the proper effort for your workouts (which is not necessarily the fastest speed you can go).
1. Reduce your risk of injury
For the rest of the article, let’s think of a hypothetical workout to illustrate all of these points. Here’s what you have on the schedule:
- 20 minute easy warm-up with a couple strides to loosen up
- 10 x 3 minutes fast/1.5 minutes easy recovery
- 20-minute easy cool down
That workout is hard no matter how you slice it. And if you go too hard on the intervals, you might sabotage your body on multiple levels. An athlete could probably do that entire workout around a pace they could hold for 10-15 minutes if they treated it as an all-out effort to sustain the fastest pace they can. By the 2nd half, each 3-minute interval would essentially be a race, with the final 30 seconds the home stretch—arms flailing, eyes bugging out, bowels barely holding onto their sanity. That’s where the first problem begins.
Given the high power output and reduced biomechanical efficiency when straining, injury risk will be elevated. Most studies correlate the hardest workouts with the highest risk of injury. While there is no set percentage, maybe doing that workout as hard as you can increases injury risk 10% over a baseline, smoother effort. In a sport that relies on long-term consistency, a 10% increased chance of derailing a training cycle is never worth it, even if the benefits are amazing. But here’s the catch: the benefits of going all out in workouts may not be that amazing at all.
2. Adapt the adaptable
If an athlete goes all-out on that hypothetical workout, they’ll likely be playing around with their VO2 max most of the time (an effort most athletes could sustain for around 10 minutes). Training VO2 max with that volume of intensity is probably not wise because VO2 max is unlikely to improve much for non-beginner athletes, since it has a large genetic component.
Meanwhile, if the athlete did those intervals at critical velocity (usually an effort they could sustain for 30 minutes or so) or lactate threshold (approximately 1 hour), they’d be targeting more adaptable metabolic processes. So going too hard is like taking your fitness and driving it as fast as you can at a brick wall when there’s an open road right there.
The goal is to to make faster paces easier, not to go hard for the heck of it. Faster paces become easier by improving running economy, and that only happens for endurance runners over the long-term when their cells are not being flooded with the chemical byproducts of anaerobic efforts.
3. Slow twitch fibers are your friends
Those pesky anaerobic efforts may involve a disproportionately high recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which fatigue more rapidly. If your workouts involve extremely high sustained power outputs relative to your current fitness, the FT fibers will do a disproportionate share of the work and you’ll counter-intuitively find yourself less efficient at efforts with a predominantly slow-twitch component (which is most running races).
That 10 x 3-minute interval workout all-out may be a good stimulus once in a blue moon. But done too often? An athlete would probably find themselves fading more than necessary in the last third of the race as those FT fibers fatigue and the ST fibers (and intermediate fibers) are not up to picking up the slack.
4. Your brain gets tired too
We talk a lot about physiology in these articles, but the most important part of physiology is probably one we talk about a bit less: the brain. Any workout that is not mentally sustainable is a bad workout. If you dread your workouts because they grind your legs into a fine dust, then it does not matter what the other benefits might be because dread will lead to inconsistency eventually.
Beyond that, going too hard introduces a neuromuscular strain that can have impacts on the central nervous system too. That’s one theorized pathway for overtraining syndrome—layering neuromuscular fatigue on top of musculoskeletal fatigue causes the whole system to come crashing down.
In practice, it helps to think about how you feel before, during, and after workouts, rather than getting too intense with paces and heart rates.
Do you dread your workouts? Then slow them down until you don’t.
Does your workout have you writing a dissertation on the meaning of pain in your head after interval one? Then slow down until you’re singing and dancing instead.
At the end, could you not do another interval no matter how much you were paid? Then chill the freak out unless that’s the goal of this specific workout, rather than every workout.
Sustainability is what matters. Some people have the physiology and psychology to hammer themselves and come out the other end stronger, but most just find themselves breaking down and stagnating. Slow down your workouts, and you might get fewer Strava trophies today, but you’ll probably get way more in the years to come.