9 Reasons You’re Running Slow (and how to fix them to get faster)

by Jason Fitzgerald

Isn’t it funny that when something isn’t working, most of us just “buckle down” and try harder (even if you’re lost doing the wrong thing)?

maze

But often “what got you here, won’t get you there.” So if you’ve hit a plateau and are stagnating, running the same times and getting frustrated, doing more of the same isn’t the best approach.

Instead, stepping back and taking a big-picture look at your running can give you a clear picture of what needs an upgrade. Most of the time, I can look at a runner’s training and instantly spot 3-5+ areas of improvement that would dramatically help their race times or injury problems.

Recently, I got this note:

So, my big question is “have I ever run a step in my life??”   
 
I’m almost embarrassed about my dismal results from Sunday’s race. I didn’t even look at my “official” time, it was that bad. I thought it started out pretty good but I just did not have any energy. It was just an incredibly sucky performance.
 
Anyway, I’ve been reviewing my stats from the last several weeks and am seeing a lot of this crappy work. It’s like I have no juice in my legs.  

Does this sound familiar?

Have you ever been running just fine and then all of a sudden you have no juice in your legs? Like you can run 9:45 miles just fine but if you try for 9:30 it’s like the energy was drained from your body at the starting line?

Most runners inevitably hit a plateau or feel like they’re working hard but going nowhere. The culprit is usually a combination of lifestyle, weather, or training issues.

Your Lifestyle Is Slowing You Down

This is the most overlooked problem that runners experience because we tend to think if we’re training well, we should be racing well. But that’s simply not the case when a variety of lifestyle issues can make us feel like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag on every run (possibly my favorite quote of all-time).

SLEEP! Are you sleeping enough? Most of us aren’t and the value of sleep can’t be overlooked. You don’t get faster when you’re cranking out a long run or during a track workout. No, you get faster when you recover from and adapt to that stress – a process that takes a lot of sleep.

This is how the Stress – Adaptation Principle looks in action:

Stress Adaptation CycleSee how your fitness dips after a “training stimulus” (or in other words, a tough workout)? If you don’t recover by sleeping a lot, you’ll never supercompensate and get in better shape.

How stressed are you? Your body can only deal with so much stress – both physical and mental. If you’re training for a 20-mile charity walk while trying to start a new business, now is not the time to pile 5k training on top of your other stressors!

There won’t be a chance for your body to adapt to your workouts if there’s too much other stress in your life. Make sure to remove outside stress whenever possible during periods of heavy stress and racing so that you’re giving yourself every chance to perform well.

Your diet might be terrible. Lately I’ve written more about nutrition and weight loss on Strength Running because I think it’s critical for achieving your running potential. There’s typically three culprits when it comes to poor performance:

  • You’re not eating enough. I’ll use a great quote from Mark Sisson here: “Sometimes over-training is just under-eating.” 
  • You have low iron levels or are borderline anemic. This is more common in women and rare overall for most runners, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re feeling particularly sluggish.
  • You’re chronically dehydrated. This likely isn’t a problem for most runners, but monitor the color of your urine. Fun!
  • You need to eat more carbohydrate. It’s the body’s preferred fuel source for high intensity activity so don’t be fooled into thinking you can diet or cut carbs while running a lot – you can’t.

Respect the Weather

During my first visit to Washington, DC I attempted a tempo workout in 90 degree heat with virtually 100% humidity (I could see the water vapor in the air).

After 5 minutes of hard running, my chest felt like it was being compressed by an invisible vise. I was soaked from head to toe with either sweat or dew – I couldn’t be sure – and I kept thinking the paved path I was on had magically turned into soft sand.

After another minute, I quit. I had never before experienced such brutal conditions and stopped a workout so suddenly.

Combine running in the heat with humidity and strong sun exposure and you have a recipe for misery and suffering. There’s no way around it: you simply can’t run as fast in summer conditions. And when they’re severe enough, they’re more challenging than being at 7,000 – 8,000 feet elevation!

But running in the winter has its perils as well: ice, snow, slick surfaces, and sub-zero temperatures conspire against you as well. While it’s not as difficult as summer training, running through Arctic conditions isn’t ideal.

No matter what the weather throws at you, it always helps to run by feel and worry about time and effort, rather than distance and pace.

Is Your Training “Smart?”

If poor lifestyle habits are the most overlooked reason why you’re not improving as much as you’d like, poor training habits are the most common and important reason why you’re not getting faster or staying healthy.

Last year I recorded a video Q&A where I explained three elements of smart training for injury prevention that you can watch here.

But in terms of improvement rates, there are three more critical pieces to getting faster that many runners are ignoring.

#1. Not running long. Are you running a long run every week? Is it “long” compared to the distance that you’re training to finish?

There’s a reason that many runners affectionately call their weekend routine the “Church of the Sunday Long Run” – it’s the most important run of the week (especially for beginners). Running long builds endurance, helps make faster paces more sustainable, and gradually improves your ability to recover.

After a few weeks of skipped or missed long runs, your fitness declines and faster speeds seem more difficult. You’re simply not building the endurance base you need to support your other workouts.

A “normal” run of 5 miles may now be a lot closer to your long run – and it will feel that way! So do yourself a favor and prioritize the long run – it makes a huge difference.

#2 No pace variety. Runners also tend to do most of their training at the same pace. If you don’t ever run fast, you won’t ever run fast. You can click here to tweet that if you think it’s profound :)

But after you’re done tweeting, think hard about that: without varying your speed, you’ll inevitably fall into a rut and have only one gear (most likely, SLOW!). There’s three great ways to introduce more speeds into your running:

  • Do a faster workout 1-2 times per week, like a simple fartlek workout
  • Run your easy runs SLOW and your distance and long runs moderate (but still comfortable)
  • Run strides a few times per week

By fixing this one pacing mistake you’ll feel a lot better on your runs and get a helluva lot faster.

#3 Low volume. The more you run, the faster you’ll get. Applying that simple truth is what turns many average runners into significantly more competitive runners.

An enormous part of my job is getting runners to run more safely and without injuries. In fact, my little secret is that Injury Prevention for Runners is so much more than a “prevent injuries” program – it’s a “get faster” program designed to help you do it without getting hurt.

And I do that by helping runners run more. Instead of being scared of mileage increases or running more days per week, runners can rest easy knowing that the structure of their training is smart enough to drastically cut their injury risk.

Now of course many beginners or injury-prone runners have no choice. But we can do more than we think: our capabilities are more impressive and our limitations are not that constraining. As long as you’re training smart, you can probably run a LOT more.

What Slows You Down?

These are the most common trends I’ve seen after studying the training of thousands of runners over the last few years. And as I look at my own 16 years of running experience, the races where I’ve failed to perform well are usually set in a training period where I’ve made these mistakes.

But what about you?

What training mistakes, running bloopers, or poor decisions make you run slower?

And more importantly, what helps you run FASTER? When are you performing at your best, full steam ahead?

Leave a comment below and let the SR community know about your running so we can all learn from one another.

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Matt

My ‘unknown’ enemy was anemia. Shortly after a bout with a nasty virus in April my endurance and stamina sharply dropped. Distances that were once easy became grueling and near impossible to complete. I’ve had multiple blood work panels done since to find out I am anemic, not sure when or how it got to this but it has been a grind. For the past few months I’ve been modifying supplements, rest, diet, and running plans in an attempt to find my way back to normal. So far I have been marginally successful, typically however by the end of a training week I am gassed.

tobias

Hi jason firstly I just want to say thank you for the email I got I appreciate the valueable information I love what I have read in your email and emails I always I get from you that’s why I am leaving a comment here and asking your help here with my running the question I have has to do with my training and perperation I am currently struggleing to get faster times I have untill next year march to get a sub 3 hour qualifying time for comrades marathon 2015 why its so important to me is because of the bacthseeding I will be placed in this year I was in F and would like to improve that a lot if I can get atleast a C seeding I will be happy and I would do anything and following good advice I need proper coaching advice and guidance that I don’t have at the moment I did my first comrades marathon 2014 in 11h33 not a time I hoped for I know I can do better then that I was running with a paceband on my arm and It was a paceband for a silvermedal time here is my comrades times 17.50k 1h42 44.97k 04:59:52 split time 3:17:02 58.27k 7:01:54 split time 2:02:03 71k 8:46:52 split time 1:44:58 82.28k 10:30:32 split time 1:43:40 89:28 11:33:08 split time 1:02:36 I must out on brons I had to walk the last 15k because of the chip on my shoe so I had to be satisfied with a copper medal it was my first comrades I can actually be lucky to have funished the comrades because I only had run I qualifying race before comrades it was a 43.6k race in march it was one my badest race 5:33:00 atleast I have improved that time in comrades 44.97k 4:59:52 so is there anyone who can help me improve on this times thank you for reading.

Kate

Stress definitely slows me down. I notice great difficulty in getting speed workouts done and done right when I’m working longer hours or something is going on in my life. And Sleep! Sleep is so important but I always feel like I’m behind.

Rugun Tobing

I have recently improved and cut a few minutes off my race times for 5K and 10K (new PBs!) after got stuck on the same results for months. It happened after I made a few changes: 1. Minimum physical exercise and more sleep for at least 2 days before race day, 2. Leave my GPS watch at home on race day and try to believe in myself and run by feel during the race. It worked!!

Steve

One of my issues is sleep. I have had a history of insomnia ever since I can remember. Although it is mostly under control now it does still affect me and as a result it can sometimes take me longer to recover from my workouts. One thing that I really find helps a lot is meditation. I try to always maintain a steady, daily practice of meditation even if its only 10 minutes one day (I usually do 20-30 minute sessions), and when I feel the insomnia may creep up on me I also do a relaxing and de-stressing meditation before bed. Works for me!

Jeremy

The “Church of the Sunday Long Run” thing reminds me – why are long runs always scheduled at the end of the week? Is there some training principle behind that, or is it just because people tend to have more time on the weekends?

Beirti

Busy work weeks play havoc on my running regularity. During the good times, I get out 3 days a week at lunchtimes but at the moment I’m down to 1 day a week (if I’m lucky!)

What helps get me back up to race pace(7:30/mi) quickly is stairs-suicides at the end of a 8:30/mi run:

Minimum 10 sprints up and jogs down a decent flight of stairs (have got an outdoor 30-step near the end of my run). It leaves me dead to the world for the final jog back but after just a couple of weeks my pace is back.

I’ve unscientifically tried a ‘comeback’ without these and found it took longer to get back up to race pace. There’s a bunch of other variables at play, certainly but I stick by it:)

Cheena

It’s funny because it was only yesterday that I saw a runner from the runningbug that although he trains a lot, his body seems to move slower! I told him there must be something wrong or maybe he needs to change his programme. I even suggested him to visit an aussie site I liked a lot.

So, anyway, I think I should have also let him read this post! This is so such a good stuff! Thanks, Jason!

FionaBee

My issue is not having enough time to get a good long run that I want. When I do have the time I am stressed out from the busy work schedule

Caroline Combs

This is the most complete post on running, how to fix issues with why you’re no longer seeing results, and everything in between that I have ever seen. I think people believe that you only need to buy the running shoes and head out the door to get benefit from running, and while that is better than sitting still, it’s not going to work forever…. as you said, your body adapts and needs more, or a different approach. There’s so many good tips here, I’m really glad I found this, because I can apply this to my own daily run and maximize my own potential!

James @reddirtrunner

My biggest issue was a lack of variety. Same routes, same distance, same pace, same shoes… Fighting the routine, the boredom. Over the last few years, thanks in large part to a phenomenal running community here in Bentonville, AR, variety is now the ticket. Six days of just running has become a Speed workout, a Hill session, a Tempo run and a Long run. That’s right, four days of workouts and one more day with a Recovery run. Five days instead of six and about 10-15% less volume but more vertical gain and some faster paces. I also now include plenty of dirt in the regimen in place of hardtop. And since last year I use Summer to throw a new wrinkle into the mix. 2013 saw me train 12 weeks, with a coach, for a timed mile. Why? Because it was different. This year I have thrown in cycling on my two “off” days and begin a deep water running class in a couple of weeks. The result? At 45 years old I am faster now at all distances than I was four years ago. Finally, I have learned the importance of taking scheduled down time. Not just a down week during training to allow for adaptation and recovery but a full week after a tough training block.

Garcia

What usually slows me down is the mental aspect of it. I usually know that i do 4 laps, so when i realize im getting there i start getting tired. Im weird, but my brain works like that. If i listen to music sometimes i think of other things and i just get passed it.

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