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Coaches Blog

Slower isn’t the devil

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

by Laura Henry

One of the biggest misconceptions EVER in endurance sports is that slower paces and speeds are something to frown upon. I cannot begin to tell you the number of athletes who have lamented to me over the years that that they are “slower” than their peers. On the flip side of this, it is very challenging for naturally fast athletes to slow down. But to the athletes who move a bit slower of their own accord and to those who don’t, I’m here to tell you this: Slower is NOT the devil. In fact, slower can lead to better. Truly!

To the faster folks out there (and this “fast” label applies to any discipline, or any exercise, really): momentum (i.e. quicker speeds) can trick us into thinking that we’re good to go and that we don’t have anything to work on.

If you are a faster runner (or really, any speed runner) who hates to run slower (i.e. 90 seconds or more faster than targeted race pace), do you know WHY you hate to run slower? Chances are that you hate it because it is harder for you. Why is it harder for you? Because the momentum of moving forward quickly keeps you going. “An object in motion stays in motion.” If you slow it down, YOU need to do the work to keep you going. That means engaging your muscles more, stabilizing more, CONTROLLING more. And yes, that kind of control and discipline IS hard! But it is also SO beneficial.

Learning how to do things slower is harder than learning how to do them quickly. It usually takes MUCH longer because if you are learning how to do something slowly (i.e. with a controlled tempo or speed), then you are learning the correct form and way to do it. If you learn the correct form or way to do something, then speed comes naturally over time due to your increasing proficiency.

Raise your hand if you have done a strength workout and just blasted through the sets and repetitions trying to get them done as quickly as possible. I bet almost every one of you reading this has done that! Unfortunately, when you complete something without being mindful of the tempo, you are not getting the full benefit of that exercise. In some cases, it’s almost like you never did it! Or worse: if you complete an exercise at an improper tempo, you might actually do more harm than good for yourself. If you don’t learn proper tempo and movement patterns, you may actually be reinforcing the wrong way to do things, which can lead to injury.

Slower speeds and tempos point out the things that we need to and should be working on to get stronger. Having a hard time running slower? You likely need to increase your stabilization skills and work on developing the muscles that are primarily responsible for the mechanics of running. Are you dropping right to the ground when you try to do a push-up? You haven’t learned how to properly control the tension in your muscles so you can stay in control of your own movements at all times (versus gravity taking over and having control). Struggling to increase your exertion level on the bike while maintaining a lower cadence? Learning to control the pedals on your bike with your muscles (versus letting their momentum dictate what you do) can be a tough skill to master.

Try the following things and see if they challenge you:

  • Complete a push-up on a 10-count tempo. So, take a full 10 seconds to descend from the starting position to the lowered position. Then, hold that lowered position for a one-count, and then take a full 10 seconds to return to the starting position.

  • If you can’t control this movement at this tempo, then start where you are and aim to work toward completing it at a 10-count. In almost all cases, the lowering motion will feel like the most difficult aspect of this movement to master at a slower speed.

  • Run your recovery or easy runs at a pace that is at least 2:00 per mile slower than the pace you are expecting to maintain in your race.

  • If this feels very difficult, work with a certified personal trainer, quality coach, or physical therapist to identify which stabilization and strength exercises you would benefit the most from.

  • Try pushing a big gear in a low cadence on the bike.

  • If slowing down your cadence while using a harder gear is difficult for you to do, start incorporating more “Big Gear” drills in your rides to help you learn how to control effort and cadence with your own muscular tension, rather than using the momentum of the pedals to assist you.

  • Slow your stroke down in the pool (use long fins if that helps you stay buoyant and to control your kicking) so you can think about each phase of your swim stroke.

  • Swimming is probably the most challenging discipline to self-assess. Working with a swim coach can be tremendously helpful, as that coach will be able to assess your stroke and give you specific drills (which should be completed slowly and with intentionality) that are assigned based on what your own swim stroke looks like.

I have worked with so many athletes over the years who have heeded my advice to slow down when it was time to slow down. Do you know what happened when they did that? They became much more self-aware in almost every aspect of their training. They were able to push harder when it was time to push harder. They were able to move faster than ever before in their speed workouts. They were able to control their bodies and gain strength in ways they never thought possible. In other words, they became smarter, stronger, faster, AND more confident - all from slowing down.

Slowing down is not the devil. In fact, I think slowing down is one of the most elegant and beneficial things athletes can do for themselves. Give it a try! I do not think you’ll be disappointed with the long-term results that come from instituting this change in your plan. :)

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