I’d been thinking about doing a podcast addressing issues that are unique to slower runners. When I posted on Facebook about this topic it really seemed to hit a nerve and we got a lot of good feedback. So, thank you to everyone who took the time to share your perspective on this topic. It was very helpful.
Issues Faced by Slower Runners
The big question to deal with first is what actually is slow. This is very subjective. For an elite runner anyone who doesn’t place in a race could be considered slow. There’s the whole “there’s only one winner mentality and second place is the first place loser.” But for a 7 hour marathoner a 5 hour marathoner is going to seem fast. There really aren’t any clear cut boundaries.
I guess if you looked at it from a numbers perspective then the top 30% of the finishers in a race could be considered fast, 31-60% middle of the pack, and everyone else slower. However, it really depends on a variety of your factors including age and gender and the type of race you’re doing.
Tales from the Back of the Pack
In the responses we received from people who perceived themselves to be slow there was a wide variety of paces mentioned from a 9:00 minute per mile (5:35/km) to 15:00 minute per mile (9:19/km).
I’ve seen articles about running before that basically said that if you didn’t run faster than a 7:00 min/ml that you were a jogger or shouldn’t even be running. Obviously that’s elitist crap and not the attitude that the majority of runners have.
But there’s also the assumption that every runner wants to improve their time and get faster. That’s also not the case. Many runners are perfectly content with their pace and simply run and do races to enjoy the challenge.
I’m a slow runner! My goal in races is to finish the race within the cut off time and everything else is a bonus. It might seem a low bar but strangely running a PB is not necessarily a motivator for me. Running with friends, enjoying the race and feeling healthy enough to finish the race are more than enough. I know I’ll never be a professional runner so why stress about my time?! It actually stresses me out more when people want to compare times with me. -Lina W.
So we’re going to talk about some of the challenges and issues that slower runners face. These may not apply to every slower runner so I don’t want to make blanket generalizations but these things did come up frequently in the responses we got.
1. Desire to get faster
As it turns out the majority of runners want to get faster and see improvements in their time. That’s why every running magazine and website has multiple articles devoted to getting faster, speed work, mental strategies, etc. One common thing that holds some runners back from getting faster is poor running form. There may be certain weaknesses and imbalances in the body that prevent you from getting faster as quickly. I’ve noticed that the majority of slower runners have a lower cadence (or leg/foot turnover).
My average long run pace was 12:30/mi until this spring. Within in the past 3 months, I moved up to a 10:30-11:00/mi. My challenges has always been breathing. My legs can do it but I hyperventilate. Now my issue is leg turnover. -Tricia M
Cadence is one thing I track and work on with my coaching client. Taking short quick steps will improve your running efficiency and reduce the risk of injuries that can be caused by over-striding. One great way to work on increasing cadence is by using a metronome app. You set the app to the desired beat per minute (180/min is ideal) and then try to match your steps to the beat. It can be helpful to try this by running in place at first.
One highly recommended app is called Visual Metronome by One More Muse. There are several different ones available for free that you can download. If your initial cadence is 140-150/min it will take some time to get to 180 so aim to increase your cadence by 10 steps per minute at first.
2. Carrying extra weight
One possible reason why a person may struggle to get faster is because they’re carrying extra weight. The more we weigh the more the forces of gravity hold us back and the more energy we’ll expend while running. Some studies have estimated that even 5 extra pounds of body weight can reduce our running performance by 5%. That’s why elite runners watch their weight very carefully.
I remember Meb Keflezighi talking about how he was right at racing weight before the Boston Marathon (a whopping 121 pounds). So, the fact is that if you can reduce body fat to normal levels that it will improve your running to a certain extent. Extra weight also makes annoyances like chaffing more common and it can be difficult to find running clothes (sports bras) that fit well. But we all know that talking about losing weight is much easier than actually making it happen.
3. Training takes more time
As a slower runner you’re on your feet for longer and may run the risk for overuse injuries if you’re not careful in your training. That’s one reason why it’s so important to include focused low impact cross training into your schedule. Things like swimming, cycling, rowing, yoga, Pilates, strength and core training work neglected muscles and can contribute to making you fitter and less injury prone.
At 63 years old and about 30 lbs overweight, my average easy run pace is around 15:00. One of the biggest challenges is being out there for hours longer than faster runners, which can add to overuse injuries. And most recently, having to stress over whether I would be able to finish before the cutoff time brought a lot of added stress, possibly even contributing to the GI stress that ultimately kept me from getting to my goal of finishing the marathon.
Also, I joined a local running group last year but no one runs my pace, so I still end up running alone. I get so much encouragement from all of you, and from the podcasts, which I’ve been listening to almost from the very beginning. You guys feel like family, and understand me better than non-runners ever could. -Sharon H.
4. Fueling needs may be different
When you’re running for multiple hours this may require some adjustment in your fueling routine.
I am a slower runner that used to be much faster prior to injuries and am really struggling to embrace the back of the pack!! Plus, it is really hard trying to run without walking at the back when so many seem to run /walk and take up so much space. Finally, do you fuel based on distance or time spent running? Thanks. -Jenni G.
You’ll want to fuel for the time you’re out there, not the distance. If you’ll be doing a 3 hour training run then you’ll want to fuel at regular intervals with enough calories to keep you feeling strong, but not too much as it can cause GI issues. Simple sugar products are often not as effective for longer time frames because of the quick release of the sugars.
For example, using multiple gels can often cause the GI tract to get overwhelmed with bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhea the result. I’ve seen some runners at the beginning of a marathon with what looks like a gel buffet around their waist. A longer acting fuel like UCAN may help keep energy levels more stable so that you require fewer calories for long runs.
5. Pacing strategies
As a slower running you will want to develop a pacing strategy that works for you as you will be on your feet for longer. This may include using run/walk intervals to conserve energy over time.
We interviewed Jeff Galloway of the run/walk/run method on the podcast a few episodes ago. You may want to go back and listen to that and check out his website or books for more information.
6. Elitist attitudes
Unfortunately, there are always some people who promote the idea that you’re only a real runner if you’re fast. This rubbish may come from some running publications and faster runners. However, I would say that this is the exception and not the norm. Most runners of all speeds are very supportive and encouraging. So if you run into one of the “bad apples” don’t let their negativity affect you. Realize that they’ve obviously got other issues that are causing these attitudes.
Several years ago there was an article in my local newspaper about how marathons needed to be more elite and only those runners who could post at least 3-3.5 hr times should be able to run them. This elitist mentality made me see red. I have so much respect for all runners, but particularly for those that aren’t naturally fast but persevere for 5, 6, 7 plus hours on the course! All marathoners show grit and determination but I argue that this group shows that even more so. -Anne K.
7. Time comparisons
Since running is a very numbers oriented sport it’s hard not to fall into that trap of comparing ourselves to others. I think we’ve probably all done that at some point. When I look at the times from elite and sub-elite athletes it’s easy for me to feel very slow. I’ll most likely never break the 3:00 barrier in the marathon (I’d be estatic with sub 3:30). This can lead to the “compare and despair” mentality.
I tend to struggle with placement at the beginning of the race, especially if there aren’t any pace groups. I’m always nervous about placing myself too far up in the pack because I really don’t want to get in anyone’s way, but if I place myself too far back, I’m doing a lot of weaving. . . . When I see my other runner friends placing in their age groups every weekend, it’s hard for me not to feel slow, but another runner friend reminded me of the “compare and despair” thing. I try to remember that I’m competing with other runners when I’m out there, not everyone. Otherwise, I think my stats would be a lot different. -Liz G.
It’s wonderful to want to compete with yourself and improve. That’s very natural. However if you find that this is taking the joy out of running and causing a lot of stress it may be time to take a step back. If you find yourself not happy with the way a race went because you missed an age group placing or you don’t PR every time then you’re placing too much pressure on yourself.
It may be time to run technology free, or not dig into the race stats quite so deeply. Whatever you do, don’t base your value as a runner on your speed or placing in a race. Every runner has worth and should be valued in the running community.
8. Discouragement with getting slower as you get older
We did a podcast a while back on the aging marathoner. And one fact of getting older is that eventually you will get slower. There is a period of years that you will often get faster no matter what age you start training but this will not last forever. Even though age is just a number I’ve accepted that someday sub-4:00 marathons will not be realistic for me (hopefully not for many years).
You have to think about why you run. Is it only to get faster? Or do you find other payoff factors in running? If you notice that your pace eventually doesn’t improve despite a lot of effort it may be time to focus on other benefits that come with running such as friendships, traveling to races, staving off illness that often come from inactivity, having more energy, and the mental and emotional boost that results from running.
Not only am i slow i am slow for an old person (he is 69). my goal when i started MTA was 12 min/mile. i have achieved that and my PR for a half is about 11:45 min/mile. But of course now i want to go faster. My last half i dropped back to 12 min/mile. I try a number of strategies such as monitoring my heart rate, run/walk, and run continuously. I would like to break 11 min/min and qualify for Boston. -Herb H.
But you don’t have to give up on the desire to improve just because you may be getting older or have come to running later in life. You can always become a better version of yourself. With age and experience can come mental toughness and a great appreciation for the ability to run.
9. Lack of running partners
Many running groups/clubs are often geared toward faster runners and you may feel left behind during track workouts or group runs. You may want to find a group that’s a better fit for you (like Team in Training or Disney run groups). Or you can connect with runners more your pace online. But one great thing about being slower is that you often make better connections with other runners during races. There will most likely be someone going your pace so you won’t be alone.
10. Stress over cut off times in races
This is a silly little detail that bothered me at the Pittsburgh marathon. Based on my expected finished time, I was put into the last corral (4 corrals total that contained both half and full marathoners). It took me 29 minutes to cross the starting line. -Erica L.
Not being able to finish during the cut off time is a real fear for slower runners. Often a race will have a cut off time which is shortened because it takes time for the last corral to actually cross the start line. Sometimes the roads can only be closed for so long and if you’re out on the course longer you don’t have traffic control and have to move to the sidewalks. Some races have been known to start taking down the finish line before the advertized cut off time which is not cool. I’ve had many runners report that they fear getting swept up in sag wagon.
Fortunately most races advertize their cut off times and you can usually read reviews on places like Marathon Guide from other runners to see how the races handles slower runners. There are also forums like the Marathon Maniac and 50 State FB groups where you can get feedback about how the race treats slower runners. Some marathons offer an early start option if you’re projected finish time is over 6 hours. As our quick tip today we’ll give you a list of races that are best for slower runners or walkers because they have generous cut off times.
11. Fear of being last
My positive about being slow is not how many finish in front of me but that I did finish and an added plus is how many people are behind me. If no one is behind me then I was just cleaning up the pack and making sure no one was left behind. Lol When I first started walking everyone laughed and said you are to old (I am 63). I will show them. my first 5K was in February in 25degree weather my pace was 14.40 and 750 finished behind me. -Mary Lee L.
The potential of being last can be a scary thing. I’ve had many people say that not finishing last is their biggest goal for a race. But if you look at this logically, finishing (even last) is better than not finishing at all. Someone has to finish last. And one lady who finished last said that it was actually very special. People cheered her on and it was a memory she cherished. The person who finishes last often has to overcome many more obstacles than those who finish near the front.
12. Sparse aid stations
Another issue slower runners face is that aid stations sometimes run out of supplies or are closed. I remember one marathon that Trevor and I did had abandoned aid stations after the 20 mile mark (and we were running an average pace). Usually those who have been out on the course longer need the aid stations even more. This is another one of those issues that you can read reviews about to see how the marathon stocks and staffs aid stations.
Race directors need to make sure that aid stations are fully stocked and staffed for the entire time the course is open. If you’re unsure if the race will have aid stations open then be sure to carry some fluids and fuel for yourself.
One of the biggest challenges of back of the pack runners in racing is that too many runners forget that no matter what your speed there are plenty of runners behind you. My wife has walked many half marathons and reminds me of this every race! Marty D.
13. Finish line getting shut down early
Often slower runners face fewer spectators, the race running out of medals and sometimes having the food gone at end.
I am a slower runner for longer distances. My marathon PR is 5:30, but most of my times are around the 6 hour mark. My average half marathon is between 2:30 and 2:45. At my first marathon (Chicago 2010), they were taking the course down around me. I finished last at a half marathon before (Delavan Frostbite Classic 2012). I don’t get down on myself about it, but I would like to get faster (and I am, slowly but surely). -Erin S
I always think it’s sad when a race doesn’t plan for food for all runners or when faster runners clean out everything. I like it when the race gives out one bag of food to each finisher—thus ensuring that everyone gets one. If you’re not a slower runner remember that there are hungry people behind you. Don’t take finish line food for family and friends.
There are some real issues to think about for slower runners but there’s also many positive things that come with the back of the pack. We’ll talk about some of the wonderful things about being a slower runner in another blog post.