What’s Behind the TikTok #GreaseTheGroove Running Trend?
This viral social media movement focuses on consistency over intensity, and it might help you recommit to a running routine
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
What do you think are the biggest barriers to people starting exercise? When I asked friends this question, the most common answer was invariably: “time.” Understandably, when you have to balance work, family, leisure time, and exercise, the one that drops off the radar is usually…exercise.
Part of the problem, I think, is that exercise is seen as something that takes time and effort. While the “effort” part is a given, anyone who has tried to run a flat out 5K will know that it’s very possible to get in a good amount of exercise in a short amount of time. And yet, I have found myself repeating it’s not worth it when I only have 30 minutes for a run or strength session. Apparently, I’d much rather sit on my phone and scroll mindlessly through Instagram.
However, for the last six weeks, I’ve been partaking in my own little self-experiment. In the lead up to a 140-mile, five-day ultramarathon, I’ve been base-building—working on my aerobic base and strength in order to withstand the increased intensity and volume of training closer to the race. The other day, I was hiking on the StairMaster—a special kind of hell that makes you question certain life decisions—as I watched a fitness vlog to pass the time, where someone said, in passing, that they were “greasing the groove.”
Feeling like I must be missing something, I googled the term and discovered that “greasing the groove” referred to a way of training I’d been accidentally following almost exactly for the past six weeks. To “grease the groove” (GtG), means to regularly perform an activity at a low intensity. The term was coined by renowned Soviet weightlifter Pavel Tsatsouline, also the guy credited with bringing kettlebells to the U.S. He believed that, to get better at an exercise, you should practice it submaximally (where you could lift a whole lot more for more reps) but more frequently. If you thought Russian strength training secrets would be more macho than lifting small weights a few times a day, think again.
The Science Behind “Greasing the Groove”
Whenever you lift a weight or do any movement, your muscles contract, signaled by your nervous system. While any movement can feel strange the first time you do it, through practice, you get better. This much is obvious. This happens via the process of “myelination,” where regularly-used neurons become coated in a fatty substance (myelin sheath), increasing the speed and efficiency that they can fire.
In the book Training for the Uphill Athlete, by Kilian Jornet, Scott Johnston, and Steve House, submaximal (zones 1 and 2) training and “movement economy” are referenced constantly. “We learn through repetition, creating motor neurofiring patterns that result in the desired movement…When you switch (to a new movement), you are forced to use the conscious control of your frontal cortex for running. This conscious control is slower, less efficient, and tiring,” writes House.
While this specifically references technical downhill running, the point stands for any new movement, including endurance running. Through endless repetition, we not only get fitter, but also more efficient, thanks to our neurons firing differently. By “greasing the groove,” your neurons become lean and mean firing machines, and you actually get stronger. This can happen even before you become fitter; fitness takes a couple of weeks to show, but regular practice can make you better at something long before this point.
“All exercise, sports, and training is a form of skill, so regularly practicing at a lower intensity allows you to build up the neurological pathways to improve particular movements,” says UK based Alex Crockford, fitness trainer and founder of Crockfit. “From there you could increase intensity or volume, which is great from a safety and injury prevention point of view. Greasing the groove can reduce the soreness you feel the day after training, recovering faster, meaning you can train more regularly and improve faster.”
Say you wanted to get better at push-ups. Rather than following the traditional idea of heading to the gym twice a week and repping out as many push-ups you can, instead you do a few of them at home, as often as you can. While the kettle boils, before bed, in between emails, you do a few push-ups. Through endless repetition of submaximal reps here and there, your neurological pathways attributed to improving movement skills become more and more proficient—they become greased!—and you get better.
It’s easy to see how this might work with bodyweight exercises. You might only have time for an hour gym session twice a week, but everyone can afford the 15 seconds it takes to do five push-ups five times a day. Through the week, you end up doing considerably more push-ups than if you’d gone to the gym twice and maxed out your reps. Because of this, Instagram and TikTok are filled with crossfitters, gymnasts, and weight-lifters alike sharing posts with the hashtag #GreaseTheGroove.
Greasing the Groove for Runners
When it comes to running, the term “Grease the Groove” is mainly missing from the vernacular (except for on a few Reddit threads), but its principles have been echoed from beginner runners to world-class athletes.
“The frequency of exercise is at least as important as overall volume, for both deliberate practice of the skill and for strengthening physiological pathways,” says Damian Hall, British ultrarunner, coach, climate activist, and cofounder of Green Runners. In other words, getting out for a run, even for 20 or 30 minutes four to six times per week, is thought to be better than only getting out two to three times, even if the time spent running is the same overall.”
Of course, you don’t get the same physiological stimulus from three short runs as you do from one long one, but using GtG for aerobic base-building may have something to it. Later in a training program, runners will want to incorporate more speed sessions and longer runs, but doing this onto a strong aerobic base will maximize the benefits.
Camille Herron’s “Skip the Long Run” tweet sent shockwaves around the community earlier this year, challenging the conventional wisdom around training plans, but her ideas are not revolutionary. For starters, it’s not like Camille doesn’t do long runs. She only does long runs once or twice a month, but those long runs are up to 22 miles, a decent distance even for ultra-athletes. In lieu of bigger-mileage days, she runs regularly, clocking up double-days most days, and incorporates interval training in between easy runs.
For me, this is right in line with GtG. Rather than heading out for big runs a few times a week, GtG suggests that we should incorporate more frequent, not longer, runs into our lives. Splitting runs helps load management, too, so if injury risk increases with time on feet, splitting runs with a few hours of rest helps manage injury risk while still getting in that mileage.
Again, Training for the Uphill Athlete addresses this head-on: “Your body has a remarkable ability to adapt to frequent, gentle nudges. But it does not respond well to infrequent bludgeoning.”
Grease the Groove, Build the Base
As humans, we’re made to move constantly. Without wanting to resort to naturalistic fallacy, the idea that something is good simply because it’s natural (Tobacco? Botox toxin? Marrying your cousin?), it’s true that we are not made to sit still all day and then head out for an hour-long run three times a week. The extremes, especially as we get older, are not kind on our body.
We all know running is good for us, but it doesn’t have to be long to reap the benefits. A study of 55,137 adults showed that a 5- to 10-minute run every day at a slow pace reduced risk of cardiovascular death by 45 percent, with a three-year life-expectancy benefit.
“Your body has a remarkable ability to adapt to frequent, gentle nudges. But it does not respond well to infrequent bludgeoning.”
Even looking at performance, rather than health, this idea holds true. Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile training during his lunch break at medical school, and there is substantial evidence that quantity of easy running is a strong predictor of performance (up to a point, of course). By doing a lot of easy intensity runs, the aerobic base is maximized, building a strong foundation for any increase in volume or intensity.
Helpfully, this works better with most people’s schedules and energy systems, too. People plan to do so much, and if they can’t find the time for a whole session, they tend to do nothing. But a 20- or 30-minute run is excellent for your aerobic base, building strength and good habits, too. As you get better, these runs can increase in length, but the idea of frequency over length and ease over intensity persists.
The point of “submaximal” needs to be emphasized. Increasing the volume of fast runs will quickly lead to burnout or even aerobic deficiency, and it misunderstands half of the GtG rulebook: frequent, submaximal training.
This is how I’ve been training for the past six weeks. No run is too short, so I’ve been jogging to meet friends for coffee, running to and from lunch (excellent gut training for ultras, I might add), running to the gym, running to appointments, and running in-between meetings. In that time, I’ve racked up a whole lot of mileage with minimal fatigue, another benefit of keeping the runs short and easy.
Since the base-building phase of my experiment, I’ve started increasing the distance of my long runs, incorporating more hills and one speed session a week, bringing me closer towards most running plans. GtG is unlikely to overtake traditional race plans any time soon, but when it comes to easing back into running after a break, or building a solid aerobic base, the GtG could be just what you need.
The Bottom Line?
In my own little N=1 study, my resting heart rate is down six bpm, my heart rate variability is up 9 percent, and I feel like I have so much room for more when my training plan asks for it.
Running is one of the few things in life where you get out what you put in. GtG is hardly revolutionary in its ethos, but for me it has reduced the time and effort barrier to almost nothing, and in doing so, I’m no longer dreading my harder sessions or wondering how I will ever be able to run 140 miles over five days. The mental pressure to head out for a long run or nothing has gone, and in its place is the idea that it’s all good training.
Anything is better than nothing—just be sure to grease that neurological groove.