Are slow running and micro workouts effective exercises?

When you take up running, the urge to start pushing for PBs often quickly follows. And seeing those improvements can be a great motivator – but what happens when you don’t see them?

When the PBs flatten out way before you’ve climbed the ranks on Strava? When you’re low on time or energy, your joints simply don’t respond well to being pushed too hard, or the buzz of chasing gains has fizzled?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking if we’re not constantly improving, then we’re not doing it ‘properly’ or – even worse – we have no right to be taking up space.

For Emily Shane, who shares ‘slow running’ content on Instagram (@runswithemily), letting go of this pressure has been transformative.

“Slow running has changed the way I view running and other forms of exercise. When I took the ego out of running and focused more on getting maximum enjoyment from it, I dropped any previous ideas I had about running. I used to think I couldn’t run, when in fact I was just running too quickly after feeling pressure from people online and friends who were much faster than me,” Shane explains.

It’s enabled her to fully embrace the benefits of doing an activity she loves.

“When you stop focusing on pace, running becomes something really fun and also now crucial as part of keeping my mood stable and my brain happy. As well as being active, of course. Finding a pace I can run comfortably at for a long period of time was hard, but once you find that sweet spot, it’s so worth it.

“I love the communities of slow runners. The people I’ve spoken to online and met in person at run clubs have all been incredibly supportive of each other,” Shane adds. “It’s not about who is the fastest, it’s just about being there for each other and cheering each other on over the finish line.”

Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, ultrarunner and co-founder of Black Trail Runners, has noticed this shift too.

“As a run coach and personal trainer, I’ve seen a massive shift to a more intrinsic-based approach to running, to using movement for wellbeing. People are tired. Tired of not feeling they look the right way, move the right way, are part of the aesthetic clique,” Pace-Humphreys observes.

“When it comes to running, I have always advocated the 80/20 rule – 80% easy running and 20% something a bit spicier. And when I say easy running, I mean aerobic – the kind of running where you can sing, hold a conversation. The kind of pace where you might feel you can do it forever.

“I specialise in trail running and it lends itself to a slow approach. How can you get real connection with people, places and things if you are rushing by, head down, looking at your watch?

“Slow running really lends itself to being more present, mindful. It’s gives the opportunity to really tune into your body – and that’s what, these days, many people are looking for. A way to move that allows them to disconnect with the constant buzz of digital lives and reconnect with themselves.”

This mindset is reflected in other modes of fitness too, wherever and however you get your exercise. The past year has also seen growing positivity around the idea of micro-workouts, for example – making peace with the fact we’re sometimes strapped for time and embracing what is within reach.

Exercise doesn’t have to be so regimented…

Becky Scott, Nuffield Health

A growing body of science has emerged during 2023 too, backing this up. Research published in October in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggested just 22 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity, such as brisk walking, jogging or even housework, could offset the negative health effects of sitting too much. More recently, research published in the European Heart Journal found as little as ‘four to 12 minutes per day’ of being at least moderately active was associated with health benefits. It’s why terms like ‘activity snacking’ have emerged.

“Research shows us that exercise doesn’t have to be so regimented, and that small amounts of physical activity spread across the day can be just as beneficial,” agrees Becky Scott, physiology regional lead at Nuffield Health.

“Particularly for those who work from home, ‘exercise snacks’, such as a brisk walk during your commute or lunch break, can help combat the adverse effects of prolonged sitting. Movement of any kind can help regulate blood sugar levels and lower blood pressure, helping to reduce the risk of developing common chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

“It’s no longer a necessity to ‘carve out’ time to exercise; instead, it can be built into other activities, making it much more accessible,” Scott adds. “Moreover, these activities can be shared with colleagues, friends and family, to make physical activity more sociable and enjoyable.”

For Suzy Reading, author and psychologist specialising in wellbeing – who is also a yoga instructor and personal trainer – this all makes sense.

“After the gruelling few years we’ve had, I think we are being called to a more compassionate pace – using exercise as a means of managing energy and stress and less about being yet another means of striving, ambition, and punishing ourselves into shape,” says Reading, whose books include Rest To Reset (RRP £12.99).

“I am loving the message about protecting our future selves, championed by pioneering trainers like Elizabeth Davies @thiswomanlifts, who is cheerleading the message ‘training for my old lady body’. This certainly aligns with my own evolution of fitness in perimenopause,” Reading adds. “I am exercising to nurture and preserve my health. I am drawing on my expertise as a psychologist, yoga teacher and personal trainer to shape my movement choices.

“It’s about keeping things oiled, freeing tension, emotional digestion, exorcising nervous energy, tending to my nervous system, and paving the way for peace, access to mental clarity and better sleep.”