Run Slower to Run Faster

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This weeks blog is by Jason Karp – Run Slower to Run Faster

When I was a kid, I loved watching the TV sitcom, I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was one in a million.
There was a famous episode during which Lucy and her friend Ethel work at an assembly line,
where they were assigned to wrap pieces of chocolate as they came down the conveyor belt. At
first, the job was easy. The chocolate pieces were coming down the belt at a slow enough speed
that Lucy and Ethel could easily grab each piece of chocolate and wrap it.

Then the speed of the conveyor belt quickened, and Lucy and Ethel had their hands full.
Literally. They couldn’t wrap each piece of chocolate in time before the next piece was already
passing them, so they grabbed handfuls of chocolate and shoved them in their pockets and in
their mouths. It was hilarious, and that episode became a famous part of TV history.

Little did the director of that scene know that he revealed the secret to how to become a better
distance runner.

Clearly, increasing the speed of the conveyor belt didn’t work. Lucy and Ethel couldn’t keep up
with the pace of the belt. If the company that Lucy and Ethel worked for wanted to produce
more wrapped chocolates in less time, they should have had more factories with more
assembly lines and more workers like Lucy and Ethel wrapping chocolates coming down the
multiple conveyor belts.

Deep inside your athletes’ muscle fibers, those factories are the mitochondria, and those
workers—the Lucys and Ethels—are the enzymes that catalyze the chemical reactions involved
in aerobic metabolism. The more mitochondria a runner’s muscles have, the greater his or her
muscles’ capacity to use oxygen and the faster pace he or she will be able to sustain. The most
efficient way to make more mitochondria—more factories, more assembly lines, and more
workers—is to run more. And to run more, runners must slow down their runs, because there is
an inverse relationship between training intensity and duration: The faster one runs, the lower
the total amount he or she can run. In addition to the slower pace of easy runs enabling
runners to increase their weekly mileage, they also decrease the chance of injury and can get
more out of their harder workouts because their legs will be less fatigued.

The number and size of mitochondria in the muscle fibers is sensitive to the volume of work
performed. When the factories are stressed because of greater demand, more and larger
factories will be built to increase their supply to match the demand. If those pieces of chocolate
kept coming down the conveyor belt long after the 30-minute I Love Lucy episode was over,
more conveyor belts, and more and larger factories to hold those conveyor belts, would have
been built to keep up with the demand for chocolate.

One of the biggest mistakes runners make is thinking that to run faster in races, they need to
run faster in workouts. So, they run their workouts faster than their current fitness level
dictates. I once coached a college runner who ran 19 minutes for cross country 5K, and she told
me she wanted to be trained like a 17:30 5K runner. So, I told her to run a 17:30 5K and then I’ll
train her like a 17:30 5K runner. Races, which tell the runner and you his or her current level of
fitness, dictate the training speeds, not the other way around. Distance runners don’t do
workouts to practice running faster; they do workouts to improve the physiological
characteristics—to make more assembly lines—that will enable them to run faster in the
future. Even if it’s not as funny or as glamorous as the I Love Lucy chocolate episode.

Blog contribution by:


Chief Running Officer, Run-Fit & REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™
10x Author, including Running a Marathon For Dummies
Founder, Run Kenya camp
Founder, JK Literary Agency
2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year
MBA student, San Diego State University

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