Issues Faced by Slower Runners

photo credit: Brian Leon; Flickr Creative Commons

photo credit: Brian Leon; Flickr Creative Commons

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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

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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.

Conclusion

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.

12 Responses to Issues Faced by Slower Runners

  1. Stacy Sawyer June 15, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Excellent piece! Thorough and dead-on accurate. I’ve been a walker, run/walker, jogger, now mid-packer and have experienced almost every one of these.

    In regard to comparing times and paces with other people, about 8 years ago I stopped wearing a timing chip or having my time show up in results. I started doing it because (mostly) well-meaning folks would dive into the results then email something like, “hey, what happened out there?” or “looks like it wasn’t your day” when I probably thought I’d done OK or even great. I carried that worry and that weight every time I did a race and decided I’d had enough.

    Once I knew that the only person watching me was me I began to click off PRs every time I raced. I pushed myself harder than I ever had, and I could finally always feel proud of myself knowing that I wasn’t going to be judged based on the clock. Most importantly, I now have fun and enjoy races. Sometimes I even forget I’m in a race – it all feels like a big workout to me!

    • Angie Spencer June 16, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      Thank you Stacy. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective on being a slower runner. I think it’s great that you’ve decided to take the competitive (against other people at least) aspect out of racing and instead focus on getting the best out of yourself. Keep up the wonderful work!

  2. WindRunner July 14, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    I have experienced all of these. I admit I have embarassment that I am keeping the volunteers out longer. But I also tell myself a DFL at any distance is still WORLDS BETTER than being a slug still in bed (which I used to be!!!).

    I recently ran a very small 10K. Joked with the course attendent I was DFL at the 3 mile mark. Ended up passing 3 runners around mile 4 (steady pace on my part; no actual speed). But I made sure the water station and course attendants knew how many were behind me to help them out.

    I always try to find races friendly for slower runners, but sometimes you just want to get out and run a distance. I pay the same fees as everyone else! In fact, the slow runners and their fees are many times the difference in breaking even or even in making money for the charity. Us slow runners do give!

    I know slow runners that will not sign up for many events because the perception is the race is too fast or only for “real runners”.

    Fast runners have hundreds of choices for running groups, events, etc. But slow runners are loyal for those groups and events that go out of their way to make us welcome. Hopefully race directors and coordinators get the message. This list of problems is true and too common.

    It chokes me up a bit when there is a solid crowd for the last runners. The chance to cross the line to cheers and run with others is critical to helping them keep running and improve their health and lives.

    Thank you for the article and helping to call attention to this. The community gets better when it includes more!

    • Angie Spencer July 14, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

      Thanks WindRunner. You bring up some excellent points. I often find that smaller races tend to be more personal and willing to work with slower runners. Recently during the finish of the Western States 100 miler the last person to finish within the time limit was the most inspiring of all. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be out there for an extended period of time and I love to see the final runners applauded too. Keep up the great work!

  3. Clint Burleson August 10, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    Great Article!

    For many of us who having been running distances for years our PR is way behind us. We still love the sport, but there are now dangers in training for speed. So we have changed our challenges from speed to quantity.

    And we are still number oriented but it is not about finish times. The questions asked in a group of “endurance” (quantity) marathoners, or halfsters, will be: “How many have you now completed?” Or “How many have you done this year?” Or “This weekend?”

    We are slow and often keep it that way on purpose. We could probably run a bit faster but have to keep in mind how that faster race will affect our performance next weekend or even for the next day.

    • Angie Spencer August 10, 2015 at 8:14 am #

      Thanks for this excellent perspective Clint. You bring up a good point that running slower is a choice that some people make in order to make distance running easier to recover from and to accomplish a goal of doing multiple marathons (and ultras). Another benefit is that there is a certain camaraderie that develops amongst runners who aren’t trying to compete with others. It’s a wonderful thing!

  4. Dionne Catledge October 18, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    I really appreciate this article. I just attempted the Chicago Marathon. The posted end time was 3:30, yet everything – water, gatorade, mile markers – were taken down by 1pm. This was so very discouraging. I felt like a wuss, because I gave up at around 18 miles. No water, relatively warm for a Chicago October, and my sadly declining confidence and motivation played a role, especially the latter two. Nice to read something that can help me be better emotionally prepared for a marathon. Thanks!

    • Angie Spencer October 19, 2015 at 8:35 am #

      Hi Dionne. Thanks for sharing your experience at the Chicago Marathon. It can be very disheartening when the course doesn’t do a good job supporting back of the pack marathoners. But know that there are many people who experience the same things you do. I know you’ll be back and stronger than ever. All the best as you continue pursuing your running goals!!

  5. Colleen Johnson March 29, 2016 at 11:49 pm #

    I am a 60 year old diabetic and cancer survivor, who began running at the ripe old age of 58. When I run marathons (I’ve done 9 full or ultras thus far), I have to make it to the finish line with arthritic knees and bones that are thinning at an accelerated pace due to my ongoing cancer treatments. Because I’m a diabetic, I have to monitor my blood sugar for hypoglycemia. Diabetics are at greater risk of “hitting the wall” than other runners, and nothing will take you out of a race faster than bonking. I’m also very slow. It can take me 7+ hours to finish a full marathon.

    I have to pick my races very carefully. Most marathons can’t accommodate someone as slow as I am.

    But I’m not alone at the back of the pack. There are others back there – a few even slower than I am – who muster every bit of strength they have, as they make their way 26.2 miles down the road to that finish line. And our ranks are growing.

    When it comes to the 7+ hour marathoners, you will find that most all have some kind of health related issues that make run/walking marathons more difficult than what the average marathon runner has to endure.

    I have, personally, run/walked marathons with “back of the packers” who have asthma or other breathing problems, foot injuries, serious vision impairments, bone-on-bone arthritis in the knees, and total knee replacements. I have one friend who ran a half marathon while she was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. There are, in fact, a surprising number of “back of the packers” who are also cancer survivors. As for age, I’ve run with a number of marathoners who were 65+ years old. Occasionally, I even run with somebody who is over 75.

    We “back of the packers” may not be fast, but we are Strong. What we lack in youth or health, we make up for with sheer courage and determination.

    I am proud to be a “back of the packer.” I am proud of the accomplishments of all my fellow “back of the packers.” I run/walk with some of the best people you could ever meet.

    Fortunately, it has been my experience that most of the other runners that I have encountered along the way – surprisingly, even the young elite runners – seem to appreciate the fact that we “back of the packers” work hard to make our way to the finish line.

    The main problem I have encountered is that most marathons close their doors to the 7+ hour marathon runners.

    And that is a shame, because as a group we bring a level of determination and maturity to the race that you don’t find with those younger, faster runners.

    I want to say right here that this old woman appreciates those marathons that open their races up to the exceptional run/walkers in the 7+ hour crowd.

    • Angie Spencer March 31, 2016 at 7:37 am #

      Hi Colleen, Thanks for sharing your experience as a back of the pack runner. I have so much respect for the fact that you started running later in life and have not let health challenges stand in your way. I totally agree that there is so much inspiration to be found among slower runners and that races are missing out by not having longer finish times. Keep up the awesome work as you pursue your running goals!

  6. Former Twin Cities Runner April 9, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Thank you. I’ve always been a back of the pack runner. Before kids, after kids. With less weight and more weight. I’m just not a speed demon. I’m physically built more for sprinting than long distances, but I slog my way through. And I’ve encountered all of this.

    My greatest heartbreak was running the Twin Cities Marathon in 2007. It was my first (and as of now my only) marathon. It was a really hot October day that year. It was the same day as the Chicago Marathon, which closed down early due to heat and Twin Cities was considering closing as well. I had hoped to finish between 5-5:30 hours, but the heat changed that. I made it across the finish line just over six hours fighting the sag wagon behind me for the last few miles of the race. But when I crossed the finish line, no shirt (even though they still had them), no medal, no nothing because I was more than 6 hours. They had them, but I, in their eyes, hadn’t earned them. And the bitter part about it was that I had corralled myself towards the back out of respect for faster runners, but in the end they used gun time instead of chip time to decide who to DNF. I had always thought that it was the chip time that matters most.

    It’s been nearly 10 years, but the pain is still fresh on that one.

    • Angie Spencer April 9, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your story from the Twin Cities Marathon. That was definitely a tough year due to weather conditions and it’s a shame that they didn’t see fit to give out race swag and medals to all runners who finished. I’d say that you should go back for a redemption Twin Cities Marathon. Or find another one that is much more friendly to slower runners. Thankfully there are a growing number out there who embrace runners of all speeds. All the best!

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