Preview: Long Slow Distance

(From the Introduction) The stranger apologized for calling late and without warning. Friday night at home wasn’t the time or place for a philosophical discussion, let alone an argument. He said, “I’ll only take a minute of your time,” then talked much longer than that.

“I had to commend you for your Runner’s World column about the slowing of high school milers,” he began. (This was pre-Alan Webb.) Then, as readers sometimes do, he described what was in my own piece as if I didn’t remember.

“You mention that one of the reasons for the slowdown is the fun-run factor. I’m happy to see your metamorphosis from the person who promoted long slow distance in the 1970s. It’s good to see you can admit when you were wrong.”

Wrong? Did I say that?

“I tried LSD, and so did many others who ran with me at the time,” the caller continued. “All it did was make us long slow racers.”

Then he thrust his verbal dagger: “LSD was a cancer that has hurt the sport for a long time, and you were the person who spread it. I praise you now for having the nerve to renounce it.”

I was off duty and too tired to mount a serious argument. My brief comments carried a sharp edge.

“Have I put you on the defensive?” asked the caller. Defensive? What did he expect after launching a sneak attack on my firstborn literary child?

I’m protective of this work, though it wasn’t so much a book as an extended magazine article published in its own 64-page package. It sold modestly and fell out of print before the first running boom struck full force in the 1970s. To claim that this thin, short-lived booklet influenced the course of running for a generation is absurd.

However, the name far outlived the booklet. People who talk of LSD today, and link me to it in terms flattering or critical, probably never read the original. They don’t know what I didn’t say.

I never suggested, for instance, that this was the one true path to running enlightenment. It was but one choice among many.

The first page of the introduction noted, “This slim book contains a simple report of experiences [from six runners who each switched to slower running independently] from which you can draw your own conclusions, agree or disagree.”

This booklet never promised faster racing for everyone. All six of us featured here improved our times with this approach, but this came as a pleasant surprise to us. Mainly we had shifted to a slower gear only to escape the tyranny of track work, no matter what effect this might have had on our racing.

Our improvement probably didn’t come from any inherent magic in slower running but because it was easier running. It let us freshen up between hard efforts and look forward to the races as actual and figurative changes of pace, instead of dreading them as more of the same.

In this way LSD was less a training system than a recovery system. We raced better by staying healthier and happier, not by training harder.

The booklet also never advised taking LSD in pure form – nothing but long and slow. All six of us ran much faster sometimes, if only in frequent short races.

The fast running, taken in small amounts, made LSD work. Without the purest form of speed, an all-out race as short as a mile on the track, we would indeed have devolved into one-slow-gear runners.

Finally the booklet never meant to suggest taking its title literally – running as long as possible at the slowest possible pace. Only two of the runners featured here topped 100 miles a week habitually. They happened to be the fastest two, 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot and Bob Deines, Olympic Trials Marathon fourth-placer that same year.

The other four runners averaged what would now be fairly modest distances of 50 to 80 miles a week. We ran what would now be a relatively brisk pace of seven to eight minutes a mile.

However, runners who never read beyond the title were misled by it. Many ran too long and too slowly, and suffered from many of the same problems caused by running too fast, too often.

Shortly after publication of the booklet, I quit using the misleading name “long slow distance.” I preferred the less catchy but more descriptive “gentle running,” modest in length and pace.

One good test for the value of any theory, practice or product is how long it lasts. If it doesn’t work well, it vanishes. If worthwhile, it endures.

The message in the LSD booklet must have had some value. Many of us still run this way, no matter what we choose to call it.

Critics like the one who phoned me still talk about that booklet, even if they never read beyond the title. They say that “all LSD ever did was develop long slow runners.” I say that it is far better to be a slow runner than no runner.

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