Slow Down to Get Fast

Written By: Amber Zimmerman, Runner, 2024 Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier, 2:31 Marathoner 

I am sure I could speak ad nauseam about how important running easy is for people, but I will try to keep it succinct…somewhat. I’ll start with my own personal story because I, as many others, have had to learn the hard way that running fast all the time is not sustainable, nor beneficial. I was a fast-paced kid and started running from a young age, so I came onto the running scene with a lot of vigor and energy as well as naivete. I started as a sprinter and loved to go out fast and be aggressive no matter whether I was running the 400 or the 3200. That mentality carried me pretty far, actually, and I was competing at a high level and winning races as a freshman in high school. The fact that I was winning seemed to solidify the concept of running hard all the time and hammering myself every day to keep getting better. Unfortunately, I ran out of steam my sophomore and junior years of high school when I went through a growth spurt and my body completely changed. I went from being a 4’11”, 70-80 pound freshman to a 54” 100 pound sophomore. Training instantly became harder and attempting to run fast every day buried me in a hole of severe anemia and chronic injury. My high school coach constantly told me to slow down-even forcing me to walk at practice, which is super embarrassing as a high schooler (I would power walk to spite him).

 My collegiate career was much of the same- over-training, under-performing, chronic injury, repeat. I did not run many miles because I had stress fractures constantly, so I ran every run as a sprint trying to compensate for my lack of mileage.  Again, coaches told me to slow down, I ignored them, and to be quite frank…I sucked. Okay, maybe I didn’t suck, but I never made a top-anything. In my 3 years at the University of Tennessee, I never made it to a national championship, never scored in an SEC final, and never did anything that made me proud. I used my remaining eligibility at the University of New Mexico, where I was coached by Joe Franklin. The mentality was very different at UNM. Being at altitude, we did not do much high intensity work. It was one medium-hard track workout and one long tempo each week, and the rest was up to you. Naturally, I ran those “up-to-you” miles entirely too fast and then died every week on the long tempos as I watched Coach Franklin ponder how I could be so incredibly terrible at anything over 4 miles. It wasn’t until my last year at UNM that I started easing up on my normal runs, and suddenly I got a lot better and was able to finally do long tempos and even made my first national championship team. I, however, did not get that good and still got my butt kicked at nationals finishing 7th on my team. 

I’ll breeze through some of my post-collegiate events, but suffice to say I started triathlon, raced at the elite level for three years, learned I didn’t like triathlon and went back to running. Approaching the end of my triathlon career, I was invited to the Olympic training center for a recruitment program. The main thing I remember about that camp, other than sucking at swimming, was that my coach at the time told me to SLOW WAY DOWN. My last run in Colorado Springs was over 10 minute pace just to show her I could keep my heart rate below 110 bpm on a run. I kind of loved it. I went through a series of other adventures after giving up triathlon, including mountain and ultra racing where the focus was on endurance and not speed. I started to love running/walking up steep mountains and didn’t care if my watch said 14 minute pace. I took my shot at the Olympic trials marathon qualifying time of 2:45 in 2018 at CIM and missed it by less than 1 minute. Over the next year I started developing severe headaches where I would lose my vision and hearing any time I ran. I gave up on racing after a few disastrous attempts and slowly worked my way back to painfully slow running where I could keep my heart rate low enough to prevent headaches. Then the pandemic hit, and racing ended for everyone. I was in my final year of grad school so didn’t care much to race anyway. Fortunately…or unfortunately, depending on your perspective…the run community is creative and came up with virtual challenges. I was probably running 35-40 miles per week but suggested to my friend we try the Yeti challenge, which is 5 miles every 4 hours for 24 hours. The next challenge was to see how many miles you could do in 10 days- I did 139. Then it was how many you could do in 5 weeks- I did 524, with one week hitting 130 miles. Then I made up my own challenge of running a marathon every Monday before work for the month of November. Finally, I did 51 miles over a 24-hour span running/walking/shuffling with my friends and coworkers on New Year’s Eve just for fun. I was amazed at how much I was able to run and how much I wanted to run by throwing pace out the window. 

I raced for the first time in 2 years when I moved to Philadelphia and blew my 10k PR out of the water even though I had done extremely little fast training. Over the next year, I PR'd in every event from the marathon to the 5k. I probably would have PR'd in the mile, too, but I pulled my hamstring trying to be a bit reckless. I ran a 2:36 marathon in January 2022, a 52:39 10 mile, a 15:37 5k, and just closed the year with a 2:31 marathon and a win at the Philadelphia Marathon. Since running 2:36 in January, my easy runs have progressively gotten slower, and my race times have improved across every distance. 

I coach myself and have since I quit triathlon in 2018. As a scientist, I have really leaned into the literature on different running methods and why they work from a physiological standpoint. There is unequivocal evidence that polarized training works and works extremely well for any type of runner. I follow the 80/20 rule quite closely, which means on a 100 mile week, approximately 80 of my miles are 8-9 minute pace and 20 are at or below my goal marathon race pace of 5:40. I do not run miles between 6 minute and 8 minute pace unless some strides or hill sprints are thrown in. People confuse “easy” with “easier,” and that is why most people stagnate and fail to improve. Easy is more objective than people think. Easy running means if someone is looking at me, they will think that I am running easy based on my relaxed posture, slow breathing, joyful expression, etc. Easier is often relative to your 5k pace, and yes, 6:50 pace may be easier than your 5k pace, but if you are a marathoner averaging 6:20, it is nowhere near easy enough. Easy running (i.e. zone 1, maybe 2 or HR<65% of your max) serves a purpose. It allows you to utilize fat for fuel to a higher degree. It allows you to move blood to tissue and deliver nutrients while clearing waste. It adapts mitochondria in your muscles so they can work more efficiently when you do need to run fast. And perhaps most importantly, it allows you to run consistently day after day because you are not exhausted. I was once only able to run 10 miles per week and now I run 15 miles per day like it’s nothing. I don’t think people realize the benefits. I see a lot of people run their warm-ups at 7 minute pace and their workouts at 6:20 pace. When you do this, you burn up stored glucose before you actually get to the workout and then you bonk and get discouraged. If instead, you run your warm-up in zone 1, you don’t tap into those reserves, and you can run longer and faster, and it’s much more enjoyable. 

I do not think I am alone when I say I heavily rely on running to maintain my mental health, and without it, I am not a good person. The only way I am able to reliably run every day and function as a human being, is if I run easy. I seriously encourage people to ignore their egos telling them that their average pace on Strava means anything, because it doesn’t. The real power move is showing up on race day and blowing people out of the water that have been running faster than you every day. I’ll leave everyone with this: Easy running is like sleep. It serves an undeniably critical purpose, and without it, you will suffer.


Need help slowing down more than just your body? You can check out our Runner's Toolbox, Injury Journal, or our Slow Down. Get Fast. coloring book through the following link: Fast Bananas Store