Long. Slow. Distance.

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

In 1969 Joe Henderson wrote Long Slow Distance, The Humane Way to Train. Unfortunately it is one of the most maligned and misunderstood books in the entire catalogue of running literature. A lot of its detractors claim that it advocates slogging along as slow as you can for as long as you can and produces nothing but long slow runners. As Henderson himself points out, if that is what you think then you probably haven’t read the book. What Long Slow Distance advocates is a steady diet of not too hard, but not too easy, comfortable runs with the added spice of speed work in the form of races.

In this slim pamphlet size book, Henderson offers up the anecdotal accounts of six runners in the late 1960’s who got off the track and away from regimented workout plans. Four of them simply ran fifty to eighty miles a week at around seven to eight minute pace. The other two topped a hundred miles a week at the same paces. Now that is not exactly the slow shuffle we usually associate with LSD runs. No, those were reasonably long runs at a fairly hard pace which resulted in Amby Burfoot winning the 1968 Boston Marathon and Bob Deines placing fourth at that year’s Olympic Trials marathon. Henderson says it really was not as much of a training plan as it was a recovery plan. They put in long runs that could best be called comfortably hard and then raced fast on race day. And they raced relatively often. The races, everything from a mile to a marathon, were their speed work.

These runners were not physically and mentally fatigued from the constant track intervals and repeats that were the common way of training in those days. Of the runners Henderson describes in his book, only Burfoot ran scheduled speed work and that consisted of short fartlek sessions on grass. During an email exchange with Henderson some years ago I sought to make sure I had not misinterpreted his thoughts. He confirmed that I had not.

You may be thinking that the entire idea sounds too simple to be true. You may be wondering if it worked for anyone else.

Henderson writes about Jack Farrell in his 2004 book Run Right Now. Farrell coached high school cross country and track in California. His teams at Thousand Oaks High School won two state cross country championships off of a very simple training concept. Farrell had his runners run every day for four to seven miles, depending on their level, and at a pace that was forty five to sixty seconds slower than their current race pace. That was it. On the website www.coachesendurance.com Coach Farrell explains his reasoning much further in an article entitled “Rethinking the Hard — Easy Myth”. The gist of Farrell’s theory is that training all comes down to frequency, duration and intensity; and each of these components should be kept in balance. Very simply, if you race at seven minute pace then you train at slightly under eight minute pace until your race pace improves. Then speed up your training pace accordingly. Farrell describes these training runs as not especially hard but not especially easy either. Hmmm…..sounds a little like Henderson’s LSD to me.

Have you ever heard of the late Ed Whitlock? Whitlock was the first, and still one of only two runners, to run a sub three hour marathon after the age of seventy. He ran a 2:59:08 at age 72 and later ran a 3:15 marathon at the age of 80. How did he train? Whitlock described his training as running laps around a local cemetery for two to three hours a day at a slow shuffle. The slow shuffle usually turned out to be about a nine minute pace. So how did Ed Whitlock run the marathon so fast? He raced frequently at every distance from 1500 meters on up. The races were his speed work. I read somewhere that the best way to build race speed is by running races. It certainly worked for Whitlock.

So let’s consider that idea of steady, comfortably hard runs followed by fast races. Long ago in a distant time and place I was a little bit fast. Not real fast but sub six minute pace for 5K and sub forty minutes for 10K. I was a decent local level runner. Now I’m happy to break nine minute pace for a 5K and an hour for 10K. But in examining my running logs I find an interesting correlation. At every part of my forty year running career my race pace has always been 60 to 80 seconds faster than my average training pace. I have seen that same correlation mentioned in one of my running books but I can’t remember which one. I’m old, I forget things. I wonder if anyone else notices the same type of correlation. You may be wondering, what is the point I’m trying to make?

I’m not sure there is a point, except that maybe we tend to make running too complicated with detailed plans and formulas and workout schedules. Maybe we just need to relax and go out and run however we feel on that particular day. Matt Fitzgerald wrote about that in his book; RUN, The Mind — Body Method of Running by Feel. Fitzgerald talks about tuning into your body and spending more time listening to it.

Since 1977 I have instinctively run at whatever steady pace felt right for that day. Sometimes I throw in a few surges and I have been at my fastest when I raced the most.

A steady diet of LSD may not work for everyone but it does for me.

Micah is a retiree who writes, runs, prays and enjoys craft beer in the rolling hills of central Tennessee. He goes to the ocean when he can.

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