The Olympics are right around the corner, and pretty soon we’re going to be looking at what helps people run fast. So let’s take a moment now to prepare by looking at the flip side of the coin: how to run slowly without hurting yourself or feeling miserable.
You may be thinking it’s the struggle to run fast that causes injury and suffering. That certainly can happen. However if you’re beginning MAF training or other structured training that requires you to keep your heart rate low—or even just trying to learn how to do a proper recovery run—you may find yourself struggling to run slowly enough.
There are three really common pitfalls people encounter when trying to run slowly:
Slowing down your stride rate in order to run slower can put a lot of stress on your body by taking you out of the zone where you’re using your elastic tissues for energy. A surprisingly large number of my clients over the years have traced their injury back to running with a slower friend; they felt like they couldn’t run in their usual rhythm, something started to hurt, and things snowballed from there.
Slower running is best thought of as “trotting” rather than “jogging.” Think of a dog or horse trotting, brisk and light but not fast. That’s you too — run slowly by taking smaller steps, not slower ones.
Faster running keeps you organized to move your head forward in concert with your body by leaning forward. But when you run really slowly your lean is almost imperceptible and you don’t have to work very hard to keep your head moving forward. Consequently it may droop, hang downwards, tip sideways, and otherwise be unconnected to how you’re moving.
This builds very bad habits for later, so keep your head up and stay aware that you’re pushing your head forward with your feet. Try orienting or changing your focus. And most importantly, feel what you’re doing with your upper back and neck, and see if you can keep a flow of energy through your spine to your head, without any breaks.
Lots of very small steps can result in running that doesn’t really use the thigh muscles because the range of motion just doesn’t call on them. Instead you depend primarily on your calves to power you, with a result that they get very fatigued and tight.
Instead, move your core. Slow running — a very mellow trot, let’s call it — is a great opportunity to hone your core action and weight shift. When your pelvis is moving well you run on flatter feet (neither heelstriking nor forefoot striking in a pronounced way). Thus you don’t overuse your calves. If you’re running really slowly, meaning maybe even 15 minute miles or slower, you will feel you hardly use your legs at all.
Warm up by doing this workout and you’ll find you carry a more subdued version of the movement into your run. Or do this lesson and you’ll feel better how to put it all together, including your upper body.
And speaking of your upper body, you’ll realize right away that you don’t really use your arms when running very slowly either. Your hands just stay close to your heart and your upper body moves.
In this picture, the girl in the peach t-shirt on the right has great slow-running form.
When you find the movement sweet spot for slow running, you can feel how it strengthens the elastic connection from feet to head and will translate to good running form at faster paces. So even though slow running may feel like technique-free running, the opposite is actually true. It’s a fantastic investment, not only in your fitness, but also in your form.
Before I wrap up this blog post, I’m going to ask you to consider signing a petition asking the president of the IOC to allow Yuliya Stepanova to compete as an independent athlete.
In case you’re not familiar with this story, Russian runner Yuliya Stepanova and her husband made enormous sacrifices and placed themselves in danger over the past few years to expose the state-sponsored systematic doping of Russian athletes.
Despite this, the International Olympic Committee has just decided not to ban Russia from the Olympics but to deny Stepanova’s application to compete as a stateless athlete (she and her family are currently in hiding).
In other words, the only Russian athlete to be punished for doping is the one who blew the whistle.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.