The Slow Train to Fitness
Jogging at a snail's pace, say many elite athletes, will improve your health and stamina--and even your speed
By Mark Jannot
I recently went for a run with Forrest Gump--or our nearest equivalent in miles logged. Ultramarathon legend Stu Mittleman ran 540 miles to win the 1994 Six Days of La Rochelle at age 43. He covers almost the distance of a marathon every day and has put more than 300,000 miles on his legs over the last 20 years.
Mittleman strapped a heart-rate sensor around my chest and wore the monitor on his own wrist so that he could see how fast my heart was pumping. We hit the running path in Central Park and worked our way into a light jog. And, to my dismay, we stayed there. The pace was maddeningly slow, and I was being dropped by seemingly every sweaty executive in Manhattan. I soon found myself craving pain, to prove to the pacesetters--and myself--that I was working.
No pain, no gain: It's the mantra drummed into our heads by the whistle-wielding coaches of our youth. And according to Mittleman, it's simply wrong. "No pain, all gain," he counters. He calls his philosophy "excessive moderation." You want to increase your endurance? You want to be healthy rather than just fit? Slow down. Take it easy. "The old school says that endurance is based on the amount of glycogen you're able to store, so the strategies tend to focus on how to load glycogen and how to go longer and longer at high intensities burning carbohydrates--a very limited energy supply," says Mittleman. "If you work at a moderate intensity level, you'll train your body to burn its store of fat, which is much more plentiful."
Excessiveness in One Thing
Working at a moderate intensity level, according to Mittleman, means subtracting your age from 180 (which for me was 150 beats per minute) and never exceeding that heart rate during the course of your workout. You'll have to start as slow as Mittleman and I did in Central Park, but the temporary ego-bruising will pay off in the long run. Mittleman told me a story about how he once ran a 5k just a couple of days after taking second in a six-day race. "The finish looked like a battlefield. Bodies everywhere," he said. "It was a startling juxtaposition to the six-day race. In shorter races, all people do is get into pain and see how good they are at dealing with it. I call that the electric-socket theory of training. The jolt won't carry you nearly as far as excessive moderation will."
We weren't far into our run before I began to appreciate Mittleman's approach. We could converse easily. I could pay attention to what was going on around me. I felt good--strong. Then Mittleman picked up the pace, taking my heart rate up to 175--past my anaerobic threshold, so that my body was depending predominantly on carbos for fuel--and everything tunneled down: I was being forced to focus on pain and to figure out how to keep my body going through it. Soon, his point made, Mittleman slowed us down again. "On a scale of zero to ten, where zero is the easiest you've ever worked and ten is the hardest," he said, "you really want to be somewhere between three and six." By the time we veered from the path and slowed to a quick walk, we'd run more than five miles. And I felt great; I actually didn't want to stop.
Fat for the Long Haul
To expand my one-day experiment in the park into an endurance training program, all Mittleman would have me do is more of the same: work my way from running half an hour three times a week to an hour three times a week to an hour six times a week--but always keeping my heart rate under 150 beats per minute. Not only would I be burning predominantly fat, but my speed would steadily improve.
Ironman champion Mark Allen began training this way more than ten years ago. "I'd gone through that cycle of training, getting sick, more training, getting injured--constantly having some disaster break up the consistency," he says. When Allen started his program, at a maximum heart rate of 155, he almost couldn't stand the plodding pace. "It's not very gratifying to go out and get dropped by your training partners day after day," he says. After a month of this slow but solid aerobic training, however, gratification came, in the form of a win in Hawaii's Kauai Loves You triathlon.
Allen begins his training in early January with low-heart-rate running and adds anaerobic bursts only when his speed plateaus, usually sometime in April. "At the start of the year, I'll be running six-and-a-half-minute miles," he says. "By the time I'm getting ready for Hawaii, at the same heart rate of 150 beats per minute, I can cover the same mile in 5:25."
Another argument for training and racing in the zone of excessive moderation is that it makes facing the infamous 20-mile-mark "wall" a nonissue. The average person is able to store only about 2,000 calories' worth of carbohydrates--just enough to fuel a runner for 20 miles. That same average body, on the other hand, stores about 75,000 calories' worth of fat, which in theory could keep it running from Chicago to New York, with calories left over for some laps around Central Park.
More important for those of us who aren't reeling off marathon after marathon, burning fat for energy is the best recipe for long-term cardiovascular health. Five years ago, camping in a state park off Highway 101 a few biking days north of Santa Barbara, I ran into one of those craggy raconteurs whose every casual comment suggests the richness of his life. Joe Corvino, 66 at the time, had spent 42 years as an animator at Disney. Then he'd been diagnosed with diabetes and told he might lose his legs. That's when he started riding his bike--slowly, through 43 states by the time I met him--and in the process, he claimed, completely cured himself.
At the time, I thought his story, like so many others he told, tested the bounds of credulity. Today I realize that he had found the basic link between fitness and health: pure aerobic training, Mittleman's excessive moderation. "If you don't train your body to burn fat for energy, you can cause a major sugar/fat imbalance known as Syndrome X," says Phil Maffetone, an applied kinesiologist who has coached both Mittleman and Allen. "Go 20, 30, 40 years down the road with that imbalance, and you're more likely to end up with disorders like diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease." Which of course is what Joe Corvino was facing ten years ago when he hopped onto his touring bike and hit the road. And he's probably still going.
I know I am. Since my five-mile plod with Mittleman, I've kept at it, holding my heart rate down when I run on the paths in Central Park and the track at the Y--and getting passed by pretty much everyone. But now I feel a certain perverse satisfaction whenever someone whizzes by.
Mark Jannot is a frequent contributor to Bodywork