What to Do When You Can’t Even Run Slowly

Slow, easy running is the bedrock of any running program, whether you’re aiming to beat a race time or just trying to get your heart a bit healthier. We’ve detailed the benefits here, along with tips for sticking to your chosen pace. But what if you just can’t run that slow?

We’ll assume you’ve been through the process of believing the advice and trying to run slower—you know to take smaller steps, stop looking at your watch, and zone out to an audiobook or try to enjoy the scenery. But maybe you still can’t get more than a few minutes into a run without gasping for breath. If that’s you, there are a few more things to keep in mind.

Fast walking can build the same fitness as running

The benefit of slow running is that it hits a sweet spot of effort: hard enough to push your heart and muscles to adapt, but easy enough that you can do a lot of it without getting fatigued. If your heart rate zones are properly calibrated, this is about zone 2; if you’re going by feel, it’s a pace where you can easily speak in full sentences.

Here’s the cool thing: any way you can get into zone 2 is still giving you those zone 2 benefits. You can hop on a spin bike or elliptical for a zone 2 workout, for example. And if you want to exercise outdoors but can’t stay in zone 2 when you’re jogging, a brisk walk will do.

Remember, no matter what “couch to 5k” has led you to believe, walking isn’t the opposite of running. It’s just a slightly less intense version of the same thing. So if you’re trying to stay around 70% of your max heart rate, but an easy jog shoots you up to 80%, it’s okay to do some or all of your “jog” as a walk.

This may need to be faster than your normal walking-around pace. Most of us will switch from a walk to a jog around four miles per hour (or about a 15-minute mile), so if you’re on a treadmill, try setting it to 3.5-4 mph and see if you can hit that 70% number or the conversational-but-still-working effort level. Walking uphill or walking with a weighted vest or backpack (sometimes called rucking) can be another way of upping the intensity of your walking.

Be patient

Over time, you’ll build enough aerobic fitness with walking that, one day, an easy jog actually will feel easy. It’s okay if you don’t reach that point in a few weeks; for some of us it takes months. If you’re putting in the work, you’ll get there.

  • Do entire workouts that are just walking. That viral 12-3-30 workout is actually pretty good for this, but make sure to customize the settings to your current fitness level.
  • Mix walking and running. Couch to 5K is fine if it appeals to you, but you can also make up your own run/walk intervals based on how you feel.
  • Don’t get down on yourself if you realize you’re going too fast. Just slow down and walk for a bit. You haven’t ruined your workout or anything.
  • Run fast sometimes! Monitoring your zone 2 pace is a lot of mental work even if it’s not physically taxing. Every now and then, you can give your brain a break while letting your legs have some fun. Do some sprint intervals or an entire high-speed run. Just don’t do all your runs that way.

When you start out, you might want to begin at the beginning of this list, with more walking than running. But all of the options are valid. No matter which you choose, as long as you stick with it, you’ll build the fitness to run slow and eventually running really will feel easy.

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