The well-known fable of the tortoise and the hare has science behind it! Learn about the advantageous experience of slow jogging. Your running aficionado personal training clients may never race again!

Dr. Hiroaki Tanaka, a health sciences professor from Japan’s Fukuoka University, wants to change our perspective on “the need for speed”. Tanaka co-wrote “Slow Jogging: Get Fit, Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Have Fun with Easy Running” with Magdalena Jackowska, a marathon runner and slow jogging advocate. He sums up his theory with one simple suggestion: Run only as fast as your body lets you smile.

The frequently referenced “talk test”, easily conversing with a running partner, typically ensures an appropriately slow jogging pace. The Japanese phrase “niko niko pace” encompasses what Tanaka considers a smiling cadence, one that helps lower blood pressure while boosting overall fitness. “Niko niko pace can be very different for each one of us,” he says. For some beginners, this pace may even resemble a walking speed, approximately 2-4 mph.

Slowing Down for Health

A slow distance run offers many benefits:

    • Establishes efficient form
    • Strengthens muscles
    • Promotes efficiency of respiratory, cardio, and muscular systems
    • Fosters handling of physical discomfort/improves discipline
    • Facilitates adaptation of ligaments, tendons, bones and joints to the stress of running
    • Increases size/number of mitochondria, thereby improving use of oxygen and glycogen storage
    • Burns more calories than high-intensity sprints
    • Helps body flush toxins resulting from muscle fatigue

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Deciding on Slow Jogging Distance and Time

Experts define distance runs as 50% further (or longer in duration) than an average training run. If a client typically runs 3x/week, extending one of these into a slower distance run builds endurance and strength. For clients looking to recharge their running protocols, suggest they try 10-15 minute increases every week. Those fairly new to the sport may try experimenting with slow runs lasting 30-45 minutes.

Pace and Injury Prevention

Overuse injuries often result from strenuous training; yet many runners simply stretch, then begin running as hard and fast as possible. Any official coach-led training plan builds in slower, longer runs for good reason. Hard-core sprinters may scoff at this approach, but only due to a lack of understanding of the benefits. By sharing our knowledge with these clients, we can protect the longevity of their running capabilities.

The Road Runners Club of America coaches have outlined some helpful guidelines for determining a slow jogging pace:

  • If a client completes a 5K in 30 minutes, maintaining 9:40 per mile, a slower run targets a pace of 12-minute miles.
  • If he can run a half marathon in under 2 hours, maintaining 9-minute miles, he might aim for 10 minutes, 22 seconds per mile on slower days.
  • For clients who monitor heart rate versus mileage or time, a “niko niko” pace would usually hit anywhere from 110 to 140 bpm.

Slow Distance Running

Clients new to distance running find the lower intensity of such steady-state cardio works well for building endurance. By keeping heart rates in a moderate “work zone”, runners avoid the highs and lows associated with sprints/HIIT. While training for 5K’s or half-marathons, a steady-state pace works optimally. While fewer calories get burned per minute, the longer duration of such events leads to a greater total caloric burn. Such a moderate level of intensity lessens trauma to the joints, thereby shortening recovery time.

Mixing up the speed and distance of running workouts can help clients avoid progress plateaus. Periodic slow jogging or even leisurely walks make for ideal active recovery workouts. Helping clients find their ideal blend fosters both endurance and speed, with minimal down time due to soreness/injury.

Leveraging Weight Loss

While acknowledging the gap between caloric burn from slower jogging versus fast running, research indicates that both training methods can lead to weight loss. An adult weighing about 200 pounds utilizes just over 500 calories during a half-hour run averaging 7 miles per hour. While fewer calories get burned running at 5 mph for the same 30 minutes, this pace might prove sustainable for up to an hour, thereby burning approximately 680 calories!

5 Principles of Running

As Dr. Tanaka mentions, jogging slowly should easily elicit a smile, a perfect Number 1 principle. Happy runners turn into consistent runners who make progress. Principle Number 2 involves the foot-strike. During a run at average or fast speeds, the runner’s footfall lands on the heel, as opposed to slow jogging, where the strike lands on the mid-foot, a more natural movement pattern. Interestingly, when jogging slowly, participants report a stride length 2/3 shorter than during traditional running.

Posture ranks as the third principle. When viewed from the side, a runner’s carriage propels him straightforward, eyes focused ahead, with a slightly uplifted chin. Breathing, the fourth principle of running, remains “natural”, often described as “intuitive breathing patterns”.

Building in Active Recovery Days

The final principle requires nothing more than dedication and adherence to the continuity of training. Most serious runners, regardless of pace, strive for 30-60 minutes per training day.  On alternate days, coaches suggest resistance training, flexibility work, or casual walking, maintaining the habit of daily movement while ensuring adequate blood flow to sore muscles.

Tapping into the Natural “High”

Research studies conducted in the 1990’s indicated that under certain conditions, the human body releases endocannabinoid, a marijuana-like substance that increases sensations of pleasure and mitigates pain. The scientists then compared the serum concentration of this substance for a variety of running speeds.

Perhaps as expected, walking did not lead to any uptick in the concentration of the body’s serum. Slow jogging, however, resulted in dramatically high levels of endocannabinoids, while even jogging at a medium pace elicited only a slight increase. In spite of the highly touted “runner’s high”, a faster running pace did not induce endocannabinoid production whatsoever.

Aerobic versus Anaerobic Energy Systems

Running slowly allows one’s body to improve its aerobic energy system. When sprinting or running full-tilt, the body soon reaches aerobic threshold, having exhausted the available oxygen supply. At this point, the body must shift to the anaerobic system for energy. In the absence of sufficient oxygen, working muscles must convert glycogen into energy, causing the runner to fatigue more quickly, reduce his pace or discontinue his run. A training regimen comprised of fast runs interspersed with slow jogging sessions allows the body to maximize/improve the aerobic energy system.

Defining  Slow Jogging

Each runner must learn to calculate the unique pace needed to maximally tap into his aerobic capacity. Rather than relying upon the often-used “220-minus-your-age” theory of determining bpm within which to exercise, a modified version suggests multiplying age by 0.7, then subtracting this number from 208. The resulting value closely approximates a safe maximum heart rate. With this number in mind, runners can then determine a heart rate in line with a slow yet productive jogging pace.

A final note: I recently tested this theory on a Sunday run, beginning with a smile on my face. Ignoring the climbing temperature, I found myself smiling frequently and easily as I embraced this slower pace. I run for endurance rather than mileage; that morning I hit a record-long run.

Still feeling great the rest of the day, and experiencing no soreness the following morning, I felt rested enough to run again on Tuesday and Thursday…hitting yet another record-long jogging session. To me, this ranks as a winner of an exercise experience!


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Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!