When I first started training for a marathon, I thought I could accelerate my development just by working harder. I believed the harder I pushed, the more training I take would get me there faster. But this approach led to frustration, burnout, injuries, and a break from the training.
Until one day I stumbled upon a book Finding Ultra written by Rich Roll which recounts his remarkable journey from a 40-year-old, mid-life-crisis lawyer to become an elite Ultraman competitor, which pits the world’s fittest humans in a 320-mile ordeal of swimming, biking, and running. I learned two vital concepts about endurance training from the book: Aerobic Threshold and Zone 2 Training.
Aerobic System vs Anaerobic System
It turns out our bodies have two basic energy-burning systems. The first is the “aerobic system,” which utilizes oxygen and fat for fuel. It’s your go-all-day mechanism that fuels activity up to a certain level of intensity. But when the intensity of exertion exceeds what is called the “aerobic threshold” – the point at which your lactate test curve began to escalate skyward – then the secondary system known as the “anaerobic system” takes over. It is used to power more extreme efforts, such as sprint bursts, heavy weight lifts, and fast running, the anaerobic system utilizes glycogen, or sugar, for energy, and it can only be turned on for about ninety minutes before it shuts down, depleted.
Proficiency in endurance sports is all about building the efficiency of the aerobic, “go-all-day” system. To accomplish this, endurance athletes needed to focus on training that system specifically – which meant staying in the second of five specific training zones that are established by the lactate test. For endurance athletes, consistent Zone Two (aka Z2) training – think of it as going for a jog while you can still hold a conversation which is somewhere between 60-70% of your maximum heart rate – will enhance both the efficiency of the aerobic engine and the duration for which one can perform endurance exercise. Do it long enough and Z2 training will lead to an increase in Aerobic Threshold – the maximum level of intensity at which the body continues to process oxygen and fat for fuel so that you can go “all day long”.
Up to this point, I’d been spending the vast majority of my running sessions in what is referred to as the “gray zone” – a dreaded no-man’s-land where the effort exerted exceeds that which is required to properly develop the aerobic engine, yet falls short of the intensity necessary to significantly improve speed or increase the anaerobic threshold. Such training leaves you tired and burnout, with little to no gains in either endurance or speed. It creates plateaus that stunt athletic development, and often lead to injury. And it is by far the most common mistake made by amateur endurance athletes – me included.
I still struggled with just how counterintuitive it all seemed. All I ever knew was No pain, no gain. Go big or go home. And now I was being told the exact opposite. It defied everything I’d ever believed about how to train the body and mind.
I was now starting to understand that for a guy like me, what I really need was a different kind of discipline – the discipline to slow down, way down.
Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast
This reminds me of the training and mission philosophy of Navy SEALs – slow is smooth, smooth is fast. The meaning is pretty clear. Practice slowly so that the correct motor patterns are ingrained. That’s how movements and behaviors become muscle memory – something imperative in high-speed, high-stake combat situations.
Combat situations are prone to massive adrenaline rushes and confusion. By going slow, and doing reps, they are adding control to their soldiers. Missions become surgically precise. They don’t devolve into run-and-gun chaos.
With firearms, precision and accuracy get you the desired result—put the bullet through something vital and you put the man down. Miss and you get nothing or even get killed.
Their bigger message: urgency doesn’t mean rush.
Urgency does not mean frantic. Urgency does not mean chaos. Urgency means that you need to take smart, purposeful action on a subject or a decision without delay. You are actively making a choice to move forward with a purpose to allow for successful completion.
Remember Newton’s Third Law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. The faster you try to go, the more pushback, and the greater the resistance you have to face. Going slow and smooth allows you to get to where you need to go as rapidly as nature will allow you.
Slow practice is target practice—it gives you the time to get it done right, as well as the time to be aware of your mistakes so you can correct them and learn from them.
Go slowly and smoothly. Train yourself to relax and perform the steps with efficient precision. Train to relax, train to focus, train to muscle memory. When you’re relaxed and calm and need to move fast, you’ll move like lightning. And you’ll be extremely effective in whatever you’re undertaking.
Slow → Smooth → Fast → Effective
Thinking slowly about the problem provides the insight and context needed to solve it holistically. Step back, and take a deep breath. Understand your true target. It’s probably not the first thing that caught your eye.
Acting smoothly means that your movements and energy aren’t wasted. Once you’ve identified the true target, your actions can be efficient, precise and focused. You hit your target with accuracy.
Moving fast is a byproduct of accuracy. Missing your target creates unnecessary waste, forcing you to recalibrate, reload, and resight. Only after you’ve hit your target can you move on to the next one. Accuracy is fast.
Effectiveness is the byproduct of speed and accuracy. If you hit your targets smoothly and quickly, you’ve become an effective marksman.
Notice that each step builds upon the previous one: You must go slowly and smoothly before you can be fast and effective.
This idea can be expressed in many different ways, in many different areas of life:
- Good writers command their rhythm. The writer who controls their rhythm has the power to capture a reader’s imagination.
- Good speakers command their tempo. The speaker who controls their tempo has the power to capture the listener’s attention.
- Good leaders command their velocity. The leader who controls the velocity at which they make high-impact decisions is unequivocally the leader.
We all face the temptation or pressure to move hyper-quickly at work. It’s the nature of the business world today. It moves at lightning speed. But that doesn’t mean you need to. In the art of achieving your objective in writing, speaking, leading, and any skill you put your mind to, the common thread is control. And more specifically, it is your ability to control your speed and attention.
By deliberately slowing down, you increase your ability to stay relaxed and focused. This will not only help you make sound, high-impact decisions it will also help you maintain emotional balance and keep you from burning out.
Take it from the SEALs. They do the most dangerous things in the world and they take things slow. If they can find time to pause and reflect in their line of work, so can you.
Go at your own pace. Speak at your own tempo. Play your own game.
Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast, baby!