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Go Slow to Go Fast

Here’s an excerpt from my book, written by my former coach, about the benefits of heartrate training.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Two very important things to remember when you begin a running program, especially in triathlon:

Go Slow to Go Fast


Focus on Quality Instead of Quantity

What does “go slow to go fast” really mean? It means to take your time, build a solid foundation of good running form, and develop the proper running habits. As a beginner, you should not attempt to go from the couch to a marathon in a week. It will not work. That’s like the binge diet of triathlon training. You may run twenty-six miles, but you’ll certainly end up in the ER.

Going slow does work. If you structure your training in a methodical way, the simple adaptations to your body will happen to make you a better runner. Eventually, the speed will follow. This methodology takes time and patience to build and varies by individual. Many different things may impact the progress—such as bodyweight and stressors in life. But this method is proven: if you have enough time and go slowly, your body will adapt over time and what appears to be impossible—will become real.

The next important component is to maintain high quality workouts. If you can give fifteen minutes of high quality, then I will take that any day over an hour of crappy effort.  If you focus on the quality of your time in your running shoes, eventually, the quantity will take care of itself.

Time to brrrrrrr.... I mean, run. :)

The Gear

Go to a running store that will take time to do a shoe fit. Experts at excellent running stores will watch you run on treadmill or run outside the store before attempting to put you in a shoe. They will use their analysis of your gait, footstrike and other factors to put you in the right shoe which makes all the difference.

Different theories exist about how often you should replace your shoes. I have found that having a rotation of running shoes is nice. Once you find a pair you like, then purchase a few pairs and rotate them. Typically, the rule is to replace shoes every five hundred miles, but this will vary wildly depending on footstrike, shoe and weight of the athlete.

Your choice of sock is really all about feel. Some athletes like ultra-thin socks, some like more padding. You will know after trying a few pairs. Regardless, you will want to pick up a specialty running sock, not just a typical cotton tube sock. Whether you like thick or thin socks, a running sock will be made of more breathable material that will help to prevent chafing and blisters in the long run.


Running Surfaces

As a new runner or triathlete, running on a mixture of surfaces is a good idea. This includes running on a trail, other soft surface, treadmill and pavement. You’re better off starting with a majority of your runs on soft surfaces, but you must mix in the pavement because most races take place on pavement. This does not mean that you need to zoom on the pavement. You still need to go slow to go fast.  If you spend too much time on the pavement to start, you can injure yourself from the pounding. Be smart about where you run and listen to your body. Still, remember to work in the pavement running, because if you run on nothing but soft surface, then your legs will break down on pavement in a race.

I know some people who do all their training on treadmills. As a coach, minute for minute, a treadmill creates a precision with training that you simply cannot obtain from outside running where distractions like cars, stop lights, etc. can disrupt a run. Further, if you are pressed for time as most women are, the treadmill is the perfect solution. You get up to speed quickly, you have to hold the pace, and you can vary terrain as needed.

Also, I must add a note about safety.  In the wee hours of the morning, you may find running outside to be peaceful. But safety must be your priority. Running inside on a treadmill may be a safer choice before the sun is up. Additionally, while running alone is cathartic, always remember to wear a headlamp, to have your cell phone and to use common sense in the wee hours. Using the treadmill can eliminate these issues.

You’ll hear people call it the “dreadmill.” They’ll whine, “I couldn’t run on the dreadmill for more than 20 minutes!” The longest run I have done on a treadmill is 22 miles. Was it mentally draining? Of course it was.  Running on a treadmill can make you want to poke out your eyes. Which is precisely the point of doing it! To build mental endurance.

If someone tells me that they cannot run for more than thirty minutes on a treadmill without going crazy, but yet they want to finish an Ironman race, I have to stare at them a little. I will say, “You might want to pick a different sport. If you cannot use a treadmill and find a place in your mind that is immune to the loneliness, boredom and fatigue, how are you going to do that in a race?”


Running Form

Like shoes, there are many theories about running form. Especially for a beginner, I firmly believe that it is more important to go out and be active and get some miles in your legs than to have the perfect form. If you are waiting on the perfect form, then you will come up with the excuse, “I can’t run because my form’s not good.”

At the same time, you need to balance the mileage with the quality of your workout. There it is again: quality. Good running form makes you a more efficient runner. Being efficient saves energy and allows your mind to be present, working and sharp when you need it.

If you get super fatigued from the beginning, your central nervous system begins to wane, and you can make bad decisions, both in training and on race day.

Some helpful things to remember that will improve your running technique:

  • Work on your core and lower back strength.

Maintaining a strong back and core has everything to do with maintaining posture and proper form. The back and the core are often components that people neglect, but they are quite literally the center of power. By engaging your core your legs will not suffer (as much). Therefore, when it comes time to run, you have better running form.

  • Keep your feet underneath your body.

Your stride should be reasonably “short,” meaning to keep your feet under your body. If your stride is too extended (too long), this will add stress on your back, knees and hips. If your feet remain under your body, then you will turn over your feet more quickly and propel yourself forward faster.

  • Foot Strike

There are many different arguments on heel strike versus foot strike. Again, it is important for a new runner to hit the road and begin moving. Still, working on keeping your feet beneath you during the run will help prevent a hard-to-break heel strike habit later. The heel strike, if it is deliberate enough, will serve to actually slow you down and “brake” your run stride.

  • Relax your body.

Like on the bike, you want to relax your upper body, right down to your jaw. This includes your hands.

  • Posture

Have excellent posture but you want to lean your body ever-slightly forward from the ankles. In other words, picture a straight line from your ankles through your body. That line should stay straight and rotate slightly forward during your run.

  • Get rid of the chicken wing.

Keep your arms close to your body and don’t flail them around like a chicken. (Ah-hem, Swim Bike Mom).

  • Consider Giving Galloway a Try.

The Galloway Method of running has proven some great results for beginners and advanced athletes alike. Basically, Galloway is about incorporating walking breaks into your running sessions (and races). You can run for five minutes, then walk for one minute; run for a mile, walk for a minute—whichever combination you choose is up to you. The secret to the method is consistency, however. If you decide to walk one minute every ten minutes, then stick to that plan and implement it. If you can’t stick with that method, then I recommend against using Galloway because it could become a cornerstone for inconsistency and an easy way “out” when the running gets hard.


Add Drills

To improve your form, basic running drills may be incorporated. The internet has an endless catalog of videos for various running drills, most notably the “100 Up” by Chris McDougall featured by the New York Times online. Another great drill is the “Butt Kick.” Butt kicks are just as they sound. Standing in place while keeping excellent posture, spring to your forefoot and with the other leg kick your heel towards your rear end. Your arms should be positioned like you are running. Three sets of ten kicks is an excellent starting point.

Building Your Endurance

One of the most common misconceptions is that you have to go hard all the time to improve. The more I do triathlon, the more I have come to understand just how important low intensity training is. As I mentioned before, you want to go slow in order to go fast later.

This method of training is based on heart rate zones. You monitor your zones through the use of a heart rate monitor (usually worn on the wrist) and a chest strap (which fastens around your chest, just under the bottom of your sports bra band). The chest strap reads the heart rate and transmits the data to the watch. While there are several methodologies for structuring heart rate training, ranging from 4 to 7 target zones, I’ve included the simpler 4 zone method below for illustration purposes.

Maintaining your runs in Zone 2 or approximately 70-80 percent of your maximum heart rate (or 80-90 percent of your lactate threshold) will build endurance. Lactate threshold is determined by a test called Blood Lactate Testing (BLT) and is the most accurate way to determine your specific heart rate zones.

If all else fails, you can broadly estimate your Heart Rate Zones by: using 220 minus your age for your maximum heart rate. While most fitness practitioners agree that this method is crude and can be off by 10% or more, if you are just getting into exercise, it is a place to start.  As you get more into the discipline of training and if you want more precision with our heart rate zones, I’d recommend getting a BLT conducted.


Heart Rate Zones

Zone 1 – active recovery, beginner programs (60-70% of your max heart rate)

Zone 2 – endurance and aerobic base building (70-80% of your max heart rate)

Zone 3 – aerobic and anaerobic combination (often I refer to Zone 3 as “no man’s land” because you are not completely aerobic, nor are you anaerobic; 80-90% of your max heart rate)

Zone 4 – anaerobic threshold (where a beginner does not want to be; 90-95% of your max heart rate)

Again, the BLT is the best way to determine your proper Zones!

However, if you must use the broad estimator, here is an example using Swim Bike Mom: 220 minus her age (at the time!) (33) is her estimated maximum heart rate = 187 beats per minute. Based on 187 as a maximum heart rate, her zones may be calculated as follows:

Zone 1:  112-130 (60-70%)

Zone 2:  131-149 (70-80%)

Zone 3:  150-168 (80-90%)

Zone 4:  169-177 (90-95%)


In order to improve endurance, you must build both your aerobic base and your anaerobic (muscular) endurance. You improve your aerobic endurance by going slowly, staying in Zone 2, particularly low Zone 2, during your runs. This practice will expand not only your aerobic capacity, but it will allow time for your body to adapt to the training, the movements and the shock you might be putting it through. By the way, as an added bonus, this time is low Zone 2 will also maximize your fat burning as your body can/will use fat as a fuel source at this lower level of exertion.

Conversely, you build your anaerobic engine by going hard. Therefore, by expanding and working both systems—you have two stronger engines.

As an example of aerobic training, during the off-season many professional German male triathletes “go slow to go fast.” During this time, they will cap themselves at 15-16 MPH on the bike. For a pro, 15 MPH on a bike is very, very slow. This caliber of athletes is accustomed to riding 26-28 MPH in races. However, these professional men train this way because they are seeking to build their aerobic endurance.

It is rare to find an athlete, especially one who thinks she’s fast, who can agree to turn down the “heat” and run slow according to a low Zone 2. But this type of training pays huge dividends.


There is another method of training intensity monitoring called RPE, or “Rate of Perceived Exertion.” This method is based on how you feel. The correlation is typically as follows:

Heart Rate Zone        RPE

Zone 1                         easy

Zone 2                         moderate

Zone 3                         slightly difficult

Zone 4                         extremely difficult

This may be a good way to train as a beginner, but I recommend from the start using the heart rate method, as it will yield more accurate results. That being said, you should always be in tune with your “perceived exertion” and adjust accordingly.

As a new triathlete, you will want to spend plenty of time going slow. Even later as you get stronger and faster, you will want to continue to incorporate slow runs into your training. Slow runs continue to improve your aerobic base as well as allow you to focus on smooth, clean running form. You will want to also incorporate short, fast runs and hill workouts, which will increase your muscular strength, improve your foot speed, and build your anaerobic engine. It’s training both the aerobic and anaerobic engines that yield the best long-term results.


Warm Up to Run

I do not believe in static stretching before a run. I prefer walking or jumping jacks or neuromuscular drills before running and then, stretching after. Stretching after a run is far more important.

Staying Injury-Free

The easiest way to stay healthy and injury-free is to limit the frequency of running, particularly the frequency of intense running. You do not need to run as much as people think. For example, since I started this sport ten years ago, I have gotten faster every year—by running no more than three times a week. And that includes my Ironman training. What you do in those runs will vary depending on what distance race you are attempting, but the key point is that quality trumps quantity.

Amazing! You do not need to run more than three times a week!

Additionally, most bodies have difficulty tolerating running more than three times a week—the body may break down and open itself up for injury. (Alternatively… you can run more times a week for shorter distances…) Regardless, no matter how much or how little you are running, you need to listen to your body.  If you are hurting or exhausted, then you may need some recovery time.

Remember to work on your strength training and core. I have included some different types of exercises below. The type and duration of strength and core should change throughout the season, but it should always be a mainstay of your training.

I also recommend ice baths after any effort beyond an hour. Yes, I said ice baths. While horrific and medieval, ice baths are absolutely essential.

Finally, find the new love of your life: the Foam Roller. Trigger Point Therapy makes a wonderful roller product called The Grid ( Using the foam roller is a form of self-massage and myofascial release that works like a deep tissue massage. This practice hurts, it makes me want to cry, but I firmly believe that the foam roller is a training longevity tool.

If you do not know what an IT Band is now, you will. The IT band stands for the ilioltibial band, which is a “band” of tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh, over the hip, down the knee and below the knee. The IT band keeps the knee stable during walking and running. The only thing to help the IT band when it starts to act up is to exert pain on the IT band: to roll on a foam roller; to get a deep tissue massage; to embark on ART (Active Release Therapy); to roll on a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, baseball, or Trigger Point Ball; or do whatever you can to punish and work that IT band loose.


One Comment

  • RunningOnEmpty

    April 2, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    It’s true that you can only run 3 times a week, but I got faster and hurt less when I took up 4 days instead. The trick is to have the correct mix of easy/hard efforts (as you pointed out)

    Tuesday: Speed day (fartleks, hill repeats, tempo runs, LT intervals, sprint intervals, depending on training progression)
    Thursday: Foundation run (short off the bike, or somewhat longer if stand-alone)
    Saturday: Post-bike (either moderately long distance if doing a brick, or an evening recovery run after a long long AM bike)
    Sunday: LSD (long run, almost *can’t* be too slow – all about time on your feet and getting in the miles)

    It’s true that quality trumps quantity, but nothing builds endurance like putting in some solid mileage.


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