If you’ve ever looked at a training plan for a race, you’ll notice that many of the days are prescribed as “easy” runs or runs done at a “conversational effort.” In most training plans, easy running days take up 50-80% of your weekly mileage; most off-season runs are considered easy runs as you keep the pace easy to avoid burnout between training cycles. Easy runs range from 20 minutes to 2 hours in length, depending upon your fitness level and what race distance you are training for. The question, however, is not distance or duration, but just how easy should you run on your easy days.
Some people disregard easy running days and don’t understand their value in a strong training plan and a healthy running life. Sometimes easy runs have been called “junk miles” because they don’t have a specific aim as long runs do for endurance or intervals do for speed. Some beginner runs feel that running slow is not going to improve their fitness, and other runners get swept up in pushing themselves as they train for a PR.
However, easy miles do offer a multitude of benefits for runners. When you run at an easy pace, you work primarily your slow-twitch muscles. Endurance runners (those running anywhere from the 5K and beyond) need a high percentage of well-developed slow-twitch muscles. (For note, fast-twitch muscles are developed from speed work and are present in a higher percentage in sprinters and short distance runners. 5K runners will have a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers than marathoners.) By including easy miles in your training, you increase your mitochondria and capillary density, which provides you with the ability to better utilize oxygen and be able to work harder in your speed work and tempo runs.
Easy runs help new runners or runners coming back from injury build their fitness without pushing themselves and risking injury. Between training cycles, easy running days help you build a strong running base, which then allows you to take on an intense training plan or train for a long distance race. Easy runs also help you maintain your running (aerobic) fitness and improve your running economy (which helps your run more efficiently and therefore faster). Easy running days also help your body recover from hard running days. If you’re running six days a week, easy days should sandwich your speed work, temp runs, and long runs.
So how easy should your easy running days be? According to the popular Hanson-Brooks training method, which emphasizes cumulative fatigue build in six days of running per week, easy runs should be 1-2 minutes slower than half marathon or marathon pace. So if you’re training to run an 8:00/mile pace for your upcoming half or full marathon, you should average a pace of 9:00-10:00/miles on your easy runs.
Some coaches argue that you can never run too slow on your easy days. Some even advocate running without a GPS to track your pace on those days and instead run for time or run a pre-measured route so you run by effort. If you are aiming for a high weekly mileage goal, it certainly is better to run slow and log all your miles than to cut all your easy runs short.
This article from Running Times presents both sides of the debate of whether to keep easy day on the slow side or to push the pace within the easy range. While runs the day after a hard workout serve the purpose of recovery and should definitely be slow, some coaches offer research and anecdotal evidence that runners can benefit from runner their easy days at the higher end of prescribed easy paces. For example, the McMillan Calculator suggests a range of 8:25-9:30/mile for my easy day pace, based on my previous half marathon time. This is a wide range, and during base training I find that most of my easy paced runs end up on the higher end of this spectrum.
Those who argue for easy runs on the faster end of the easy spectrum believe that running too slow does not offer as much cardiovascular benefits. Additionally, they think too slowly paced easy runs can be detrimental to running form, as the runner drags along their feet in order to slow down.
So how easy should your easy days be? The best answer is what to run at an easy effort in relation to your hard workouts that feels good for your body. If a hard workout leaves you feel sore and stiff, it’s better to slow down your easy run. If the effort does not feel to hard and it doesn’t prevent you from hitting intense paces in your workouts, pushing the pace slightly on your easy run days may help you get faster. No matter what, it is best to run easy days according to effort rather than pace.
Question of the Day:
How easy do you run on your easy days?
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