There is so much debate these days over whether to use long, slow runs in your training or to run shorter and harder. Many believe that slowing down and running at a lower heart rate is the way to build aerobic fitness, in turn making you faster. The other side finds higher intensity, more anaerobic-paced activities more beneficial to building power and strength. So, which is the right way? Well, it depends...it depends on what your training goals are, what you consider distance, and what your base fitness looks like.
Brian Mackenzie, from the crossfit endurance side, feels long, slow running is useless. He has completed a number of ultra distance runs in very respectable times and, I believe, trained no more than 12 miles at his longest. His training was put to the test recently with an article in Outside Magazine. Many have found success in their training and racing under his guidance. While I will admit that this is an appealing scenario given the time commitment of training for ultras, it is not for everyone. Christopher Solomon even states, "MacKenzie isn’t anti-volume per se, but he thinks athletes shouldn’t increase distance until they’ve perfected technique and dialed up intensity."
Check 99% of the elite and front-of-the-pack ultra runners and you'll see they train through long miles, some never bothering with speed, others incorporating interval work, at the very least. These are the sponsored, podium-standing athletes race after race. There is book after book published in regards to training slow and long. Think of this like your car...when you ease into speed your rpms drop and the car is more fuel efficient over the long drive; rev too much and you burn gas more quickly.
However, the two very differing types of training do in fact have a very common base line.Two simple words--proper form.
For Mackenzie, proper form is at the root of all of the work needed to excel as an athlete. Without it, you will end up broken. I was given his book Power Speed Endurance this year and, I will admit, I was skeptical at first. While I was just getting ready to begin a new training season, I decided to dive in and see what it was all about. I did the drills he recommended and went into my runs with them in mind. I pay attention to my feet, my knees, and my hips, and not just while running; while bending at work, getting out of and sitting down in chairs, and, yes, in my running. I incorporate squats, dead lifts, and core and upper body work. I also focus on hip work and keeping my hip flexors from getting too tight. I notice a huge benefit from having these in my routine.
While I think there is no better way to start a season or exercise program than from the basics, I do enjoy putting in the miles and spending time on trails. I also come from the mindset that a good periodized schedule is an effective way to put together a training plan. While I do continue to go over form drills and focus on those, I like miles and use long, slow distance as a part of my training. Whether it's a mental thing or, again, just enjoying the trails, they are a very important part of my schedule.
There is a common saying in ultra running that a race is 90% mental and the rest is in your head. The idea of knowing one can complete a 20 or 30 mile run before stepping up to the start line is a mental comfort. There may still be an unknown going into the later miles of a new race distance, but you can be confident your body can handle them. That mental prowess is an important one for many reasons. Often it is your mind that gives up before your body, so knowing you can handle long days is a mental asset.
Once you begin putting in more miles, it makes sense to taper down the lifting and higher intensity strength training; these are a part of early base building and the off season. This is the time to ramp up your total weekly mileage and set the foundation for a long season. Once you are comfortable with long mileage weeks, including at least one long, slow day (long weeks are individual based on daily schedule and race goal distance), you can drop down in distance and up some intensity. This could include hill repeats, interval runs, and long tempo runs. You should always keep a recovery run in your week as well. The reason behind bringing down mileage for a higher intensity week is to prevent burn out and injury. However, with a solid prior focus on form and strength the idea of injury should be off the table.
After a race you can then go back to doing a few weeks of slower distance. Then, back into a few weeks of higher intensity. Periodizing a training plan in this manner keeps things from getting stale, and it keeps you focusing on form, function, and strength throughout a training and racing season. It will end up looking a bit like an elevation chart if you were to lay it all out.
So long story short, No, I don't think the long slow miles are dead. They are a part of training that gets your mind ready to race and take on new distances. Just listen to your body and don't push it when you're not feeling up to the mileage. As long as you still enjoy the run, go do it.
Here is a great conversation between Brian Mackenzie and Rich Roll. You'll be saying "dude" to everyone with how many times it's dropped here.
So which is better: long, slow miles or only training with intensity? It is up to the individual and what is effective for one person, might not be for another; but it sure does make for an interesting conversation.
Go get some miles...or enjoy whatever it is that gets you to the finish line.