Training Slow to Race Fast: A Look At My Recent Run Data

Last weekend I ran one of the fastest 5Ks of my ten year running career after two months of slow, low-intensity marathon training. I crunched some numbers to show just how slow my training has been and mention why I think this unique approach of slowing down to speed up is so effective.

A Unique Approach to Endurance Training

Four years ago, I adopted an entirely new approach to marathon/triathlon training that relies on heart rate monitoring to build endurance in an optimal way. The approach focuses on doing most cardio training at relatively low intensities based on heart rate.

I’ve improved my speed significantly and gained a lot of confidence with this type of training for longer races like half/full marathons over the last few years, but was still surprised when I nearly PR’d a 5K last weekend without any speed work leading up to the race. As I’ll show later – I spent only 1% of my training at paces faster than 6:30 min/mile over the last two months, but was still able to hold a 6:00 min/mile pace at the race.

How can that be? The short answer lies in the fact that it’s your aerobic system (not anaerobic) that dominates during even the shortest road races, and the best way to build aerobic fitness is through low intensity exercise …

Training Slow to Race Fast

The training slow to race fast philosophy is a result of the principle of specificity – basically, we need to focus our training around exactly what we are trying to excel at. For example, a powerlifter is not going rely on hundreds of pushups to improve their 1 rep max on bench press, they need to build strength by lifting heavy. Similarly, a marathon run improves their performance not from 100m sprints at the track, but from long, sustained, sub-maximal efforts. Sprints primarily target the anaerobic system while low-intensity, long-duration exercise benefits the aerobic system. 

While many people know that the aerobic system is mainly responsible for the energy consumed during long events like marathons, most don’t realize just how important aerobic fitness is to shorter races like 5Ks. Check out the table below:  

The aerobic system produces around 90% of the energy needed for a 5K, and over 99% of the energy needed for a half/full marathon.  So – it’s clear that we need to focus on building aerobic fitness to succeed in endurance races and spend relatively little time on anaerobic capacity. The other piece of the puzzle is that the aerobic system is primarily utilized/improved while operating at low heart rates and intensities. This is motivation behind slowing down to speed up

While I could go on and on about this training philosophy (and will do so in a separate blog post in the future), here I’ll just focus on a data analysis study I did on all of my training run data from the last two months. This approach is also called the MAF method, and I’ve borrow a lot of my training ideas from this book, if you’re interested.

Crunching the Numbers

I analyzed my running data from the last couple months (11/19/18 – 1/10/19) leading up to the 5K race I did on 1/12/19 to break down my training intensity over that period. In total, I did 22 run workouts covering 190 miles over 27.5 hours

My target aerobic heart rate based on my age and running history is 150BPM, so I do a vast majority of my training at/below this heart rate to build endurance. The main result of my run data analysis is the following chart, showing the break down of my heart rate over the span of the 22 training runs considered:

The breakdown of my heart rate over two months of training runs

You can see that I spent 82% of my training time at a heart rate below 150BPM! And only 6% of my time at a heart rate over 160BPM. This means I only spent about 1:20 over the last two months running at what I consider to be high intensity. My guess is that this is probably pretty surprising to people who aren’t familiar with this specific type of training. 

Next, I looked at the breakdown of my pace over the last two months of training, which can be seen below:

The breakdown of my pace over two months of training runs

What I think is especially cool here is that I spent very little time running at my high end speed (only 1% of time spent running faster than 6:30 min/mi), but was still able to run my 5K at 6:00 min/mile pace! That’s only about 15 minutes over the last two months spent running “fast”! I think that this is really a testament to the importance of the aerobic system even for shorter races, and the ability to build aerobic fitness through low intensity exercise. 

Obviously, “fast” and “slow” are relative here. My slow might be your fast, and I’ll get smoked at my next race by plenty of faster people. But low intensity according to heart rate is more transferable. Chances are if you went out to run at 150BPM (or lower if you are older than me), it’s going to feel relatively easy. The coolest part of this type of training is that I’ve continued to get faster and faster at low heart rates as I’ve consistently practiced over the last few years. 

I visualized my running data in a couple other ways as well to take a more detailed look at my training. Below are histograms of my training pace and heart rate over the past two months, showing a more complete distribution of training intensity:

The histograms show most of my training centered around a pace near/below 8:00 min/mi and a heart rate of 150BPM.

Finally, I plotted my heart rate over time for each one of my 22 training runs, the graph is shown below:

Again, my focus of keeping my heart rate at or below my target of 150BPM for a majority of my training is clear. There are just a few exceptions of higher intensity training.

The Moral of the Story

I’ve been a strong proponent of the train slow to race fast philosophy to endurance training since I adopted it four years ago, training both myself and others to tackle half/full marathons and triathlons using the approach. The aerobic system is responsible for nearly all of the energy consumed during these long races, and the best way to build aerobic fitness is through low-intensity training based on heart rate. I was surprised, however, at how well I performed at a shorter 5K race using this type of approach, where I spent almost no time on speed work in the preceding two months. I attribute this to the fact that the aerobic system is still the dominating force behind powering you through even these shorter types of races.

If I wasn’t sold before on slowing down to speed up for endurance training, I certainly am now. And I have some data to back it up 🤓.

Have questions about the train slow to race fast approach? Interested in trying it out for your next endurance race? Contact me at jimwarnerendurance@gmail.com!

Long Run Recovery 101

A timeline of what to do after a long run to speed up the recovery process and keep your legs fresher for next time

0-10 minutes after the run:

Step 1a) Take a cool down walk – after you’ve hit your target distance/time for your run, don’t stop. Keep walking. Cool down for a minimum of 5-10 minutes. This will help your heart rate lower gradually, prevent pooling of blood in your extremities, and jump start the elimination of lactic acid and other waste products from your muscles for faster recovery. The longer and harder the run, the more important a proper cool down is.

Step 1b) Rehydrate – while you’re taking your cool down walk, start the rehydration process immediately. Take a lap around the block carrying your water bottle or sports drink. The amount of fluids needed will vary by person and with weather conditions, but a rough rule of thumb is to aim for 16-20oz of fluids in this initial recovery period. Replenishing your electrolytes after a long workout is a must (especially when it’s hot!) – so opt for a sports drink like Gatorade or water with a Nuun tablet added. Another quick and easy option that I used today are electrolyte supplements in capsule-form. If at this point, you’re feeling dizzy or your limbs are tingly, it could be symptoms of hyponatremia – have a salty snack to restore your sodium levels quick!

Rapid Rehydrate electrolyte capsules.

10-45 minutes after the run:

Step 2a) Muscle recovery: foam rolling and stretching – I prefer to foam roll first, it’s like priming the muscles for stretching, releasing the muscle fibers and promoting blood flow. Hit the major muscles (glutes, IT bands, quads, calves), spending extra time on knots and soreness that you come across. Plan on at least 5-10 minutes of foam rolling depending how much time/soreness you have. With extra time this morning, I started with a softer foam roller before upping the intensity (and pain!) on a firmer one, and finally worked my calves with The Stick. If you’re new to foam rolling, you can find a helpful how-to here.

Muscle massage trifecta. Soft/firm foam rollers and The Stick.

After foam rolling, spend a good 10-15 minutes stretching those primed muscles. Pay special attention to your hip flexors, hips, quads, and lower back, but more-or-less you want to hit all the muscles in your legs and upper body that are tight. Here‘s a small sampling of some good post-run stretches.

Step 2b) Have a quick/easy snack – it’s important to have an initial dose of carbs and protein (150+ calories) within 30 minutes of finishing your long run to send immediate help to your depleted muscles. Ideally, this snack is consumed while you are foam rolling and stretching (hence 2b). My go-to is below: a fresh juice (prepared beforehand) and protein shake, but there are plenty of other options. I like this approach because it’s digested/absorbed quickly to facilitate recovery, it’s easy on the stomach, and requires almost no preparation time so I can quickly grab it before I start foam rolling. It’s just enough to hold me over until I eat something more substantial…

Quick & easy post-run snack for immediate recovery

60 – 90 minutes after the run:

Step 3) Hot shower – ahhhhh

Step 4) Eat a healthy, more substantial meal – the snack in step 2b) was just meant to send some immediate nourishment to your muscles, but it’s important to have a more complete meal within 90 minutes of your long run. This meal should have plenty of carbs, protein, and healthy fats. Today I made sure I got some solid foods in after my shake/juice with avocado+egg toast and a strawberry+Greek yogurt parfait 😋.

Second post-run snack – nutritious & tasty.

The rest of the day and beyond:

Some more tips for speeding up your long run recovery after the initial two hour window:

  • Stay hydrated! Weigh yourself throughout the day to make sure you’ve returned to your normal bodyweight.
  • Get a good night’s sleep! 😴
  • Schedule an active recovery workout for the following day – low intensity, low impact cardio like swimming, walking, elliptical, etc.
  • Get a massage
  • Take an ice bath 😨
  • Take a warm bath with epsom salts before bed
  • Wear compression gear
  • Take Ibuprofen to reduce inflammation
  • Last but not least, my personal favorite: hang out in legs-up-the-wall pose as much as possible throughout the day and night!
Ahhhh legs-up-the-wall pose.


Meal Prep Made Simple

A quick/healthy/simple idea for rookie meal preppers… or veterans that are pressed for time

  • Four healthy dinners in 25 minutes for less than $20
  • Nutrition breakdown: 550cal; 40g protein, 48g carb, 22g fat per serving
  • Roasted chicken; Mixed veggies; Quinoa; Avocado

Doing some form of meal prep is the KEY to a healthy diet. But I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed at the thought of starting up a meal prepping routine. Not knowing where to start. Or thinking they don’t have the time/money/energy/knowledge/etc. Especially when they see over-the-top meal prep pics and posts from other health nerds (guilty as charged 🤷‍♂️). Well it doesn’t have to be rocket science. Or take forever. Or cost a lot of money.

Here’s one of my go-to dinners for weekends when I’m pressed for time, and one that I recommend to my clients who are new to meal prepping. I pick up a roasted chicken and some frozen vegetables from the grocery store. I pair that with some quinoa for some carbs and 1/2 avocado for a good source of fats. I simply shred up the chicken while I boiled some water for the veggies and quinoa. 25 minutes from start to finish. Quick. Cheap. Healthy. Easy. And honestly, pretty tasty.

25 minutes to boil the quinoa and veggies while I’m shredding the chicken.

Yeah, I’d prefer fresh vegetables. Roasted. I would prefer to have salmon a night or two to mix it up. Marinade my own chicken. Etc. But I was busy. And this works. And now I don’t need to cook this week, I’m saving some money, and I know I’m set up to have a healthy week overall.

Dinner for tonight and the next three nights!

Pro tip: I used Trader Joe’s Everything-But-The-Bagel Seasoning to make the veggies and quinoa a little more interesting 👌.

Give it a whirl if you’re just getting into the game or just plain busy. Mix & match veggies. Swap out quinoa for some brown rice. Add your own favorite seasoning. Etc.

PSA: New Year’s Resolution Dieting

Focus on slow and steady progress through small and manageable improvements to achieve your 2019 goals

Feeling overwhelmed just looking at my meal prep Sunday photo above? Does it seem impossible to get to that point from where you are if you’re just getting started? You’re not alone. It is super hard to dive head first into a new strict diet and stick with it for the long term. Some studies say up to 80% of resolution diets will fail by February! 😲 And I believe a lot of those failures come with trying to do too much too soon.

Instead, try focusing on one small upgrade to your eating habits at a time. Make it simple enough that it is easy to incorporate and maintain. Once that change has become routine to you, pick a new healthy upgrade to your diet and repeat. That seemingly obvious philosophy can help ensure that you’ll be part of the 20% that stays on target this year.

My personal diet is the result of a continual series of these incremental changes that I’ve made and kept over the past 5+ years using this approach. I didn’t just flip a switch one day and adopt/maintain the four hour meal prep session every Sunday that leads to the photo above. Something like that would require will power that I simply don’t have. 

I’m continuing to progress today in the same way I was when I started my journey. The newest healthy upgrade is pictured above: switching from store-bought salad dressing to my own homemade balsamic vinaigrette.  It can be hard to find dressing brands without added sugar and/or relatively high sodium, and the more I can break my meals/foods down into simple ingredients I control, the better. Plus, I eat a salad daily for lunch, so small tweaks here can actually have a bigger impact in the long run. 

New salad dressing – big effin’ deal right? 🙄 Probably not really worth a blog post about it. But I guess that’s the point. It’s benign. Tastes pretty similar, takes a few extra minutes per week, maybe not gonna have a huge impact on my weekly nutrition. But I’d call it a win. A slight upgrade. A little less added sugar/sodium in my diet. A little more control over what I’m using to fuel my body. And I can already tell it’s gonna stick for the long term. 

I recently made a similar post on my personal page about a small diet victory I had switching from a packaged fruit greek yogurt to my own homemade plain yogurt parfaits to cut down on added sugar and gain more control:

Other examples of similarly manageable changes I’ve made over the years:

  • White bread to whole wheat
  • White rice to brown rice; brown rice to quinoa
  • Drinking more water
  • Drinking my coffee black
  • Switching from PBJ as a morning snack to ants-on-a-log 😎
  • Making homemade PB versus store-bought
  • Switching from chips as a lunch side to mixed raw veggies
  • Switching from sandwich to salad for lunch
  • Switching from store-bought marinade to homemade

Simple stuff. Changes I’ve made one at a time until they became so routine I forgot that they had been changes in the first place.

Most of my changes are part of a continual pursuit of a zero added sugar diet, always looking to swap out a processed food for a fresh one in my routine. Do I ever expect to completely eliminate processed foods? No. I’m a fan of things like Whole30 and the Paleo diet, but I never really plan to follow one strictly. I enjoy the occasional carb/sweets binge and I’m addicted to PBJ. I’ll gladly eat a cookie or donut if a coworker brings it in. But the more I make healthier things a part of my usual routine, the better off I am.

Make a small upgrade this week. Hang on to it next week. Repeat. ✅

Balsamic Vinaigrette Recipe for the picture above:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt/pepper to taste

Combine in a jar, put on the lid, and shake vigorously. 

Recipe borrowed from: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/218337/our-favorite-balsamic-vinaigrette/