Whether you specialize in the mile or the 100-miler, easy runs are the indispensable foundation of training. In every sound training plan, easy runs constitute a majority of your runs. Why do easy runs matter so much – and how easy should your easy runs be?
Why You Should Slow Down and Run Easy
Running too fast on easy days – even just a moderate effort – inhibits some of the desired adaptations. If you begin to accumulate lactate (evidenced by breathing hard enough you can only speak in phrases), you are running too hard. Lactate is a desired product in some workouts; however, producing too much lactate in too many runs slows down recovery and therefore hinders adaptation.
The intensity of easy runs is below the aerobic threshold. Below your aerobic threshold, you utilize both fat oxidation and carbohydrates for energy production, which places less stress on the body. Your body elicits a series of physiological adaptations that improve both endurance and speed, including increased aerobic enzyme activity, capillary growth for the transport of more oxygen to muscles, and an increase in mitochondria. When you run above your aerobic threshold too often, you lose several of these benefits.
How Easy Should Easy Runs Be?
Some definitions of easy pace define it in relation to race pace. There are flaws in this approach. One common error is defining an easy run as “1-2 minutes per mile slower than race pace” without clearly defining race pace. One minute per mile slower than 5K pace is likely still above your aerobic threshold and therefore not easy. Two minutes per mile slower than marathon pace for some runners may be biomechanically uncomfortable. (For some marathoners, marathon pace may also be their easy pace.)
Training fatigue, your overall weekly mileage (and response to such mileage), your stress levels) muscle fiber composition (see more below), terrain, altitude, and other factors will affect the exact pace of easy runs. Your easy run pace will even vary day to day! Because of that, it is essential to use factors other than pace to gauge the intensity of easy runs.
- 60-75% of max heart rate or <85% of lactate threshold heart rate
- You can carry on a conversation; breathing is barely labored
- Sustainable; finishing should not be a concern
- You feel comfortable and relaxed
Your Muscle Fiber Composition Plays a Determining Role
Never compare your easy pace to another runner’s, even if they have the same race time. In my years of coaching, I see this regularly: two runners can have the same race times and the same workout paces, yet their easy run paces vary dramatically. One may cruise along at 30 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace; the other may run 60-90 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace.
A slow twitch runner can handle faster easy runs, since they burn fat at higher intensities and can delay the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Fast-twitch runners need to run slower on their easy runs. Their bodies tend to quickly recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are counter-productive to the goal of an easy run.
The Art of the Recovery Shuffle
A sub-type of easy run is the recovery run. Recovery runs are slow – so slow that you may consider them more of a jog or shuffle than a run. The pace is typically 2-3 minutes (or more) slower than your lactate threshold and decently slower than your other easy runs. Realistically, though, you are not tracking pace on a recovery run. You simply run at an effort that feels slow and leisurely. You should feel better when you finish than when you start.
How do you know if you are going too slow? Most likely, you are not. An easy run/recovery run is only too slow if you feel discomfort from altering your gait.
Adding “Stuff” to Easy Runs
More advanced runners often add small, deliberate doses of faster running to some easy runs. This is not a license to bust out a fast final mile or throw in some tempo pace; those are workouts, not easy runs.
- Strides: Strides are short accelerations done after a run. While fast, the short duration and ample recovery moderate heart rate and lactate production. Strides can be done one to three times per week – here’s how to do them.
- Surges: Essentially, surges are strides within a run. These are 20-30 second accelerations (short enough to not go anaerobic) with generous recoveries (1-3 minutes) at easy pace. These are not all-out sprints, nor is longer better.
- Moderate progressions: These are not hard workouts. A majority of the run is still within the easy zone; the final segment progresses into a moderate/steady effort, right at the aerobic threshold (roughly marathon pace for many runners).
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How easy do you run on your easy days?