Niko niko running is a Japanese concept pioneered by researcher dr Hiroaki Tanaka in his book ‘Slow jogging’ from 2016 (not a title destined to sell many copies in Europe or America but I decided to buy it anyway). Hiroaki Tanaka formalised his system after using it to improve from 4:11 for the marathon in his thirties to 2:40 when his was fifty-years old and eventually 2:38:50 – his personal best after that.
‘Niko niko’ literally means ‘smile’ in Japanese so while the term ‘niko niko run’ may sound a bit strange to us English-speakers, the idea is simple: ‘run with a smile’ for the majority of your training – the antithesis of the ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘let’s go out and bulk up that ego’ which has been drummed into our heads in our modern culture.
What is Niko Niko pace?
It is an intensity of running that occurs at a heart rate of around 138 minus your age divided by two (so if you are 40 years old likely at 118 bpm – 138 – 20). There is some variation in this heart rate between individuals and it can be adjusted 10 beats up or down depending on various factors which we’ll cover in the next article in this series ‘how to get started with niko niko pace’.
Niko niko effort happens at an intensity which most of us would think of as a recovery effort. Physiologically speaking it is an intensity that occurs at 50% of your VO2max (your maximum oxygen consumption – so if you can take in 5 litres of oxygen per minute then you would experience Niko Niko intensity at 2.5 litres).
When aerobics first become popular it meant a much higher intensity of 70 to 80% of VO2max. While a fair few runners flog themselves at this intensity and much criticism of ‘aerobic exercise’ is directed at this intensity band, the traditional endurance training method – like Arthur Lydiard’s – featured mainly running between 60 and 70% of VO2max with the 70 to 80% zone usually reserved for a weekly ‘steady’ or ‘sub-threshold run’.
Niko niko pace lies quite a bit below even these points at the 50% mark. Physiologically speaking it is a very interesting point:
- This is the point where the stroke volume of the heart (volume of blood pumped per heartbeat) is the largest
- Lipid metabolism (fat) is at its highest
- Catecholamine accumulation begins (an indicator that the stress response is just beginning – allowing for training adaptations to happen)
- Provides better post-exercise effects: reduces anxiety, improves sense of calm and well-being, and reduces pain
- In Japan it has been shown to have positive effects on metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and increases HDL (‘good’) cholesterol in patients doing 180 minutes of slow jogging per week
The evolutionary case for Niko Niko
Any new training idea or scientific hypothesis needs to fit into a greater context. We need to ask ourselves ‘why would it make sense for the human body to respond very well to super-low intensity exercise’. Tanaka outlines the case in ‘Slow Jogging’:
‘Humans are the best distance runners in the animal world….Up until ten thousand years ago, humans mainly got their food b hunting with their bare hands. There are still tribes in Africa living as hunters and gatherers. Research shows, that every day, they first walk for close to twenty miles until they find prey, and then chase it for three to five hours at a speed of around six miles per hour…When done correctly, slow jogging is similar to how our ancestors used to cover miles without getting tired. How is that possible? The answer lies in physiology , especially of muscles.”
Niko niko pace essentially recruits the greatest amount of our endurant and fatigue-resistent ‘slow-twitch’ muscle fibres without activating any significant amount of the less tireless and expensive-to-run ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibres. This system allows a healthy human to exercise near-continuously without fatigue.
Like Daniel Liebermann who proposed the ‘Running Man’ hypothesis, Dr Tanaka believes that observing correct running technique while running slow remains crucial. In many ways niko niko pace can be the perfect incubator for optimal technique because very minimalist shoes can be worn as the impact is low and runners have plenty of time to focus on proper form which will break down to a much greater degree at higher paces.* Tanaka summarises his view:
‘There’s no better way to focus on your technique than running slowly. Forefoot strike, cadence, posture-all the essentials described in this book apply to all runners, no matter their speed. We strongly recommend you spend time to make sure your running technique doesn’t do more harm than good, the sooner the better.’
* This is a common pit-fall we see from students emerging from our Running Workshops – they return too soon to the paces they were ‘used to’ not allowing the technique to develop and strengthen at lower intensities first. We revised our workshops to have a greater focus on how to apply volume and intensity when you ‘walk out the door’ and our coaches can no longer keep a fine eye on each step the student takes.
The real and the false ‘Runner’s High’
When most of us begin running, we quickly find ourselves addicted to the runner’s high and are blissfully unaware that our body dispenses two separate drugs to create a similar effect based on pace. Studies showed that our body releases a marijuana-like substance called endocannabinoids which increases the sensation of pleasure and neutralises pain. Researchers compared the release of this substance in people walking, jogging, medium-pace jogging and running. This is what they found:
‘..walking didn’t lead to endocannabinoids production, slow jogging resulted in a remarkable number, and medium-pace jogging led to a slight increase; meanwhile running didn’t induce their production at all’
The most surprising finding was probably that running did no stimulate this but slow and medium-pace jogging paces did. When we run at faster paces we tap more strongly into the body’s fight and flight response which leads to the release of other hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The effect of the two can be compared to the difference between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ high – one is long, pleasant and has no long-term side-effects whereas the other is an abrupt stimulus which leaves you deflated and tired once it wears off. Most runners in my experience have become addicted to the ‘adrenaline hit’ never knowing what they are missing out on with the endocannabinoids.
How does it feel then? Essentially your mind seems to enter a meditative state where creative ideas seem to flow seamlessly. I often come back from these runs with several solutions to problems that occupied my mind before going out. The effect also seems to last and you leave the run not feeling truly fatigued but energised. When you feel ‘wired’ (like after a poor cup of coffee) or begin to get tired or excessively craving sugars and carbohydrates in the hour after the run, you know you left the realm of ‘Niko Niko’.
So there are obvious physical and psychological benefits from niko niko pace and these run deeper: the less we trigger the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response when running, the less our brain will perceive running as a threat. This is a key barrier to break down for high performance because fatigue is an emotion created by the brain based on the level of perceived threat. The more we can calm our subconscious mind, the easier our body will accept running at any intensity and consider it ‘less of a threat’ – thus generating lower stress responses and lower heart rates at all paces. This often does not sit well with a Western mind where we pride ourselves in ‘forcing through it’ and ‘toughening it out’. This goes way back to Lydiard’s saying ‘train, don’t strain’ – we must gently persuade not violently coerce our bodies. When you go in too aggressively with a stimulus it is often rejected – niko niko pace helps circumvent this defensive response.
But I’m not tireless
Even niko niko pace feels hard for a lot of runners for two reasons. For seasoned runners, it can be a blow to the ego to discover just how slow you must run to keep your heart rate at the niko niko threshold. It also leads to surprising levels of soreness initially. This is because we are heavily working slow-twitch fibres that may have been left under stimulated by medium and high intensity running at the same time as we cannot ‘cheat’ by recruiting our more expensive, and stressful, anaerobic system. We come face to face with the limitations of our main engine – long neglected and underdeveloped.
For beginners, the challenge is different again:
‘We, however, live in the twenty-first century, have extremely comfortable lives that make physical activity almost unnecessary. As a result, we have possibly the lowest average fitness level in human history; no wonder jogging is hard.’
Normally, we only change from walking to running at around 4.3 miles per hour and this is the point where running becomes the more efficient mode of locomotion. But due to declining fitness levels in our population – especially aerobically – many beginners will not be able to run faster than 2.5 miles per hour without going over niko niko meaning slower than walking speed!
Elites wouldn’t waste their time on this?
In all likelihood, they are wasting their time on this but we are blinded to this fact because many elites are so powerful that they can run impressive paces even at niko niko intensity. In an analysis of several elite runners throughout history Tanaka estimated that 97% of the legendary Frank Shorter’s weekly volume was done at niko niko intensity and concluded ‘running slowly is vital for elite runners because it allows them to get the miles in while staying fresh for the hard days’. Local Japanese marathon hero Yuki Kawauchi was tested by Tanaka and his niko niko pace occurred at 5:10 minute/mile pace! In his schedule, he had only one session that run faster than niko niko pace – 15 x 600 m intervals run between 4:50 and 5:00 min/mi. Most runs were done between 7’25 and 9’40 min/mile and he totalled around 82 to 95 miles (Kawauchi works a full-time job despite being a sub-2:09 marathoner).
It still sounds like ‘a waste of time’
In one way, it is: we live in a society obsessed with efficiency. A near-robotic view of the human body often pressed onto us by a busy work schedule. For that reason High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) method have been lionised in recent years because they also enhance the function of our body’s most important organelles: mitochondria – our cell’s energy factories. The better mitochondria function the fitter and healthier we will be. This requires switching on a gene called PGC1α.
Dr Tanaka compared a protocol consisting of 1-hour workouts at niko niko pace with a Tabata style protocol consisting of 10 repetitions of 10 seconds of the highest intensity. The gains in aerobic capacity were the same in the two types of exercise. On the surface getting the ‘same gains’ from 10 x 10 seconds (plus recovery periods) seems a much better deal than having to plod for 1-hour, consider that the higher intensity training carries a much higher risk and puts much more stress on your cardiovascular and nervous system. This aside, the two exercise modes differ for other reasons I won’t go into here – this comparison looked strictly at one area of improvement (one variable) and in the real world this is never the case.
Post-script: Niko niko vs MAF
We have been using the MAF test for a long time to choose the optimal pace for our runners’ long, medium and easy workouts. So how does niko niko differ?
In some cases MAF and niko niko pace will not differ at all – if your niko niko pace is quite high (it could say ‘140’) it could overlap with your MAF pace. Physiologically MAF intensity can occur as low as 55% of VO2max (very close to niko niko intensity) and all the way up to 80% of VO2max in highly trained elites. For the run-down of the variation in where MAF can occur and why download the MAF White Paper.
From a practical point of view we use niko niko pace for injured, ill and returning runners or those with metabolic issues that are very severe and we also prescribe niko niko pace for recovery runs whereas MAF is used for slightly fitter and healthier individuals without injury.
To provide an example of a 40-year old male runner returning from a long injury lay-off, using the basic calculations his niko niko and MAF heart rates would be as follows:
- Niko niko: 118 bpm (possibly varying from 108 to 128 bpm based on testing and other factors)
- MAF: 135 BPM (eventually improving to as high as 145 bpm once full health is restored and injury heals). MAF training is done generally from 10 beats below MAF to MAF – so this runner would use 125-135 to begin with (notice the overlap)
So in this case we would often start giving a range of 108-128 bpm for niko niko running and 125-135 bpm for MAF. As his injury begins to clear or health improves we would upgrade the MAF to 130-140 and eventually 135-145 bpm and change the proportion of niko niko to MAF running. As the runner masters pain-free running at niko niko and then MAF, we can begin to introduce more moderate steady state running and eventually higher intensity running in small doses.
The key insight we have garnered by using niko niko pace is that it is possible to run through very serious musculoskeletal injuries and chronic pain syndromes without ill effect and with improved mobility and reduced pain after. This may be down to the reduction in impact forces, improved ability to maintain optimal biomechanics, lesser physiological and psychological stress and by counter-balancing the state of chronic low-level stress many runners today find themselves in at work and at home.
It also seems to aid healing of tendon injuries because the act of running slowly increases the amount of synovial fluid going into the area – a major issue when only passive rest is used in rehabilitation. Optimal biomechanics also redirect the tension over tendon correctly – redirecting muscle and tendon fibres to a better alignment. By making running pain-free and regular again psychological factors in the runner’s pain also seem to ease off as the brain begins to accept running again as a non-threatening exercise – by breaking the subconscious link the brain has made between ‘running’ and ‘harm’. Bones and other slow-adapting tissues have more time grow stronger for heavier loads and we have anecdotal evidence of trigger points in muscles dissipating both during and after runs (this feels like a slight electrical discharge or ‘tingle’ in the muscle fibres).
In our next article on niko niko pace, we will cover how to execute such a run in detail.
References and further reading
Slow jogging, mid-foot strike. ARticle on niko niko running at the Natural Running Centre
Slow Jogging. Dr Hiroaki Tanaka,PhD. 2016. Buy it here.
Also published on Medium.