A Western journalist visited Brother Colm's training camp one morning. Perhaps hoping to discover the Kenyan "secret" or simply marvel at astonishing athletic feats, the journalist timed his arrival to coincide with the daily workout. When he arrived, the journalist observed a group of young Kenyan men running gently and single-file around a dirt field. The journalist, assuming that this was a warmup, approached Colm and asked when the workout would begin. Colm replied, "This is the workout."
I suspect the journalist was puzzled and disappointed by the spectacle of some of the world's finest distance runners - the training partners of Olympic champion David Rudisha - meandering monotonously around a field at a pace that most weekend road warriors could easily muster. Why would this caliber of runner train so slowly? It's a reasonable question. I'll answer it and then invert it. These Kenyans are the world's best because easy runs are a key element in their weekly regimens. Why then do so many Western runners of modest caliber disservice themselves by training too fast?
For the past decade, I've dedicated myself to becoming a student of the sport. While I lack the formal education to fully comprehend the science of distance running, I read widely and have conducted an experiment of one. I'm self-trained, and the results have been promising. Since I began running 22 years ago, I've only a had a few minor injuries, none of which lasted more than a couple months. I've enjoyed near constant progress, running personal bests cycle after cycle, year after year, at distances ranging from the 3K to the marathon.
My most significant fitness gains, however, occurred since my late twenties. I attribute this recent success to years of health and consistent, progressive training. If I didn't train in a manner that was replicable and, by extension, progressive - more mileage and faster paces - I couldn't have stayed healthy. Conversely, if I'd been injury stricken, my training would be inconsistent, regressive, and perhaps even erratic.
Like Brother Colm's world-beaters, a central component of my training has been gentle recovery runs. Once a week, I'll check my pride and slow my stride to a dawdling pace for a truly easy run. Whenever possible, I complete these sessions on a soft surface, usually along a dirt trail or simply by making loops around a grass field; the forgiving earth aids in the recovery of road weary bones and soft tissue. Recovery days are shorter than my typical maintenance run, ranging from 20:00 to 50:00. My pace rarely drops to 7:00 per mile, and it is common for me to average 8:00 per mile. To put these figures in perspective, I averaged 4:54 per mile for my last 5K.
Recovery runs provide an array of interconnected benefits. These gentle jaunts replace a day off, allowing me to run 7 days most weeks and thus accumulate more mileage over the course of a month, macrocycle, and year. I believe that in most cases active recovery is superior to complete rest - I'll let the scientists chime in to explain the neurological and muscular benefits of doing something instead of nothing. By running as slowly as needed to heal between workouts and long runs, I can absorb my hard and specific training. If I was perpetually tired and not recovering between sessions, my fitness would stagnant and eventually regress or I would become injured.
Too often I hear disappointed runners attributing their shortcomings to lack of "speed work," victims and unwitting perpetuators of the insidious grind-it-out-or-die-trying mentality of Western sport. Hard intervals have a place in all training regimens. And I am not suggesting that all maintenance runs should be slogs. However, I challenge readers to honestly examine their training paces and embrace the following principals:
- Complete a true recovery run weekly, in which you average two to three minutes slower than your current 5K pace.
- During the bulk of your cycle, when you are completing at least one workout and a long run weekly, run your maintenance runs at a pace that ensure you will recover and, therefore, could replicate your output week-to-week throughout the macrocycle.
- Find a soft, even surface to complete your recovery runs and some of your maintenance runs. I've even begun doing tempo and fartlek sessions on trails to reduce the damage caused by pavement pounding. Looping around a grass field may be boring, but running personal records is great fun.
- Replace some days off with recovery runs to gradually increase your weekly mileage.
- If you run twice a day, as I often do, ensure that one run is short and very easy.
- If you choose to replace a day off with a session of cross-training instead of a recovery run, the same principals apply: go gently; don't let your heart rate rise too high; and ensure that you are not inflicting more damage on your fatigued body.
Have confidence in this approach. It seems counterintuitive to become faster by training slower. But it works, and you'll soon find yourself recovering quicker and, thus, capable of managing greater volume. Assuming you're also adding all of the right ingredients at the right times, this is a recipe to faster race times.