Whenever you begin a marathon training program, you will hear someone—probably a coach—talk disparagingly about “junk miles.” This coach will warn you about the uselessness of running junk miles—slow, extra miles added to weekly training mileage that serve no purpose.
But junk miles can serve a very useful purpose, other than just inflating your weekly mileage totals.
First off, “junk miles” is a terrible term. It implies that running any amount of slow miles is wasted time and effort. Rather than running slow, the experts tell us, you should be running hard and fast. If you’re so tuckered out that you need to run slow, we are told, it’s better to take a recovery day and don’t run at all. That might be true for top runners, but for the rest of us mortal that type of advice is flat out wrong.
A runner gains strength and endurance in plenty of different ways, but what is a certainty is that total work—i.e., total time running—leads to improvement. Research shows us that even slow running–a minute or two slower than normal training pace–can improve overall running performance.
Additionally, very slow running is great mental therapy and it has been proven to lower anxiety levels and improve your positive outlook on life. Especially if you’re someone who sulks and mopes when forced to take a complete day off from running by an inflexible schedule or coach.
Let’s face it, who wants to run hard and long all the time? Nobody. If you run too much and too hard, it will lead to sore muscles and overall body fatigue. Not good. Slow running, even more than a minute or two slower than normal, is enjoyable and stress-free.
Of course, too much of a good thing–too much slow running–makes for a slow runner. What is key is finding the right blend of slow, gentle, easy days with the more ambitious longer, tougher days.
Bracket slow easy days with harder, faster training runs. Your easy days should be very easy with nothing hard or long. It’s also a good idea to try and run some of your easy runs on a soft dirt or grass surface.
Try and meet slower friends for these runs so you aren’t even tempted to run hard. These runs are a great time to socialize and catch up with friends who you ordinarily don’t run with because of inequalities in speed, fitness and ability.
Here’s what slow running a few days a week can do for you:
1. Better running strength. Every step counts to build toward your ultimate goal—even if those are slow steps. Simply put, running more miles increases your strength.
2. Improved endurance. Added, slower miles are a great time to practice running efficiently. Work on your marathoner’s shuffle—a low, shuffling stride where there isn’t much clearance between your feet and the ground. This will come in handy during the close stages of a marathon.
3. Burn more calories. Slow, easy miles burn almost as many calories as running fast. It doesn’t matter—fast or slow—you’ll burn about 100 calories per mile. The less weight you carry, the faster you can run when it counts.
4. R&R. Many runners find the hardest “training” day of the week is when they have to take a day off. They just like to run. Instead of taking a zero for the day, run very easy and enjoy yourself.