What Is Slow Running? Health Benefits and How to Start

What Is Slow Running? Health Benefits and How to Start

Whether a 5K or a full-fledged marathon, running videos and other content abound online. And though watching someone zip through their race at lightning speed can be exciting, it might also feel intimidating. This is where the “slow running” movement comes in—the trend has picked up steam on TikTok and other platforms, assuring people they’re not “too slow” to call themselves a runner.

TikToker Ariel Greenstein posted a video in October, sharing her experience of running a half marathon as a self-proclaimed “slow runner.” Her video has since been viewed over a million times.

“I’m really proud, feeling extremely accomplished, and didn’t think that could happen,” Greenstein said after finishing the race. “So to anyone who doesn’t think they can [run], go for it.”

Slow running is one way to boost inclusivity in the sport—it allows people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability levels to feel like they can join the running community. But running slowly also has a number of health benefits, even if you aren’t a beginner, including building your endurance and aerobic capacity.

Here’s what running experts had to say about the benefits of slow running, its growing popularity, and whether you should try sticking with a slower pace during your next run.

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In this case, “slow running” is as simple as it sounds—running slowly and taking more time to complete your desired distance.

Of course, what constitutes a slow run will vary from person-to-person, since slow running is all about effort relative to potential. For example, someone who can run a six-minute mile will have a very different “slow running” pace than someone who usually runs a 12-minute mile.

Though actual pacing is relative, there are certain hallmarks of a slow run, said Todd Buckingham, PhD, a runner, triathlete, and visiting professor of exercise science at Grand Valley State University. These include:

  • Staying below 70% of your maximum heart rate. You can determine a rough approximation of your maximum heart rate in beats per minute by subtracting your age from the number 220.
  • Being able to sustain a conversation. During your slow run, you should be able to chat without becoming too out of breath.
  • Running 90 seconds to two minutes slower than your average or threshold pace. Your threshold pace is one you could run for a full hour. For example, if you can run six miles in an hour (a 10-minute mile pace), your slow run pace should be around 12 minutes per mile.

On a less technical level, slow running is simply “your happy pace,” said Alexandra Weissner, a running coach and co-founder of the run club Brunch Running in Denver.

“Slow running is what feels easy to you, and a pace that you can keep for an extended period of time. This extended period of time will also change as you run more,” Weissner told Health. “It’s where you can chat with a friend and catch up on life, or run a marathon around a city you are visiting.”

One benefit of slow running—and a likely reason for its popularity—is the fact that the term makes running feel more inclusive, said Weissner.

“There are so many everyday athletes out there that want to call themselves runners, but they have been told by the running industry that they are not a ‘runner’ due to the pace they run,” she said. “Slow running welcomes everyone.”

Running slowly also gives people the opportunity to make exercise a more social experience, Weissner added.

“While there are times running with friends pushes my pace and helps me get faster, most of the time running with friends is about deepening our relationship,” she explained. “It’s where we get to have in-depth conversations about our lives, dreams, and goals. It’s social and makes running more fun.”

Beyond just the social benefits, running slowly can be great for your physical health, too.

For one, slow running is one way to protect against injuries, Buckingham told Health. Trying to “race” every run isn’t sustainable—this method won’t give your body enough time to recover. Instead, running slowly and gradually increasing pace and distance is healthier.

“There will always be those in the camp of ‘no pain, no gain,’” he said. “Unfortunately for those individuals, they are more likely to end up with pain than gain.”

Slow running is also beneficial for overall fitness, experts said. In particular, running at a slower pace helps your body build endurance, Weissner explained.

“No matter what distance you are training for, the majority of your runs are going to be slow runs to aid in the recovery of your muscles, and will strengthen your heart, lungs, and overall fitness,” she said.

Slow running can also improve your aerobic capacity, also known as VO2 max, Buckingham said. This refers to muscles’ ability to take in oxygen while you’re working out.

Boosting aerobic capacity can prompt the body to grow more capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, he said, making it easier for oxygen to get into the muscle. Slow running and other endurance training also increase the number of mitochondria a person has, Buckingham added, which provides more energy to the muscles. Both of these keep the body functioning well during exercise.

Though experts agree slow running can be good for you, there are a few caveats to keep in mind.

Running slowly may lower a person’s chance of injury, but your pace doesn’t make you immune to these issues, Weissner explained.

“You can still overtrain, even when running slowly,” she said. “No matter your pace, you need to make sure you are in the correct gear for you, and that you are building up your training and resting when needed.”

Incorporating rest days and strength training to your weekly workout schedule are key to injury prevention, Weissner added.

Additionally, there are health benefits associated with both running fast and running slow—just doing the latter isn’t unhealthy, but it could mean you’re missing out on other improvements to your fitness.

For example, running fast helps improve your lactate threshold, or anaerobic threshold. This refers to the point where the body produces more lactic acid than it can absorb.

“Lactate has gotten a bad reputation in the past, but it’s actually a fuel source for the body,” said Buckingham. “By running at faster paces, the body learns how to use lactate more quickly and efficiently to convert it back into glucose that the muscles can use for energy.”

If someone is considering adding more slow runs to their weekly exercise schedule, “there are almost no downsides,” Buckingham said.

There’s also no need to be concerned that taking your running speed down a notch will make you slower. In fact, elite runners typically train at their “slow running pace” the majority of the time; speed work typically makes up no more than 20% of their total weekly mileage.

However, if you’re feeling skeptical about slowing down, you can try a “run/walk style run,” Buckingham suggested. These walk breaks can help keep the heart rate down and prevent the runner from going too fast, he said.

“You can split this up however works best for you. Some of my athletes do four minutes of running and one minute of walking for 30 minutes,” he said. “You can really structure it however it works best. The possibilities are pretty much endless.”

Regardless of your pace, your experience, or how you structure your runs, running slowly is crucial for supporting recovery and preventing physical and mental burnout, said Weissner.

“Running slow is the magic ingredient to running for your entire life,” she said. “Running is not always about running as fast as you can to get it [done]. Sometimes it’s about running slow, enjoying the scenery around you, taking a picture of that historical building, or joining a friend for their first 5K.”

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