After such great feedback on my podcast episode with Amanda Brooks on Low Heart Rate training, I wanted to talk more about easy runs.
Because too many of us are running our easy runs TOO FAST!
Many of us make the mistake of running the majority of our miles in a kind of grey zone – not fast enough to be having any real impact in terms of improving our speed, but not easy enough to have any recovery benefits. Runs at this in-between pace still work your body hard enough to place stress on it, increasing chances of injury, but without any real rewards.
How Fast To Run Your Easy Runs?
Most running coaches will tell you to run your hard runs hard and your easy runs easy. (I even know of one coach who will increase the intensity of their athlete’s workouts to almost force them to slow down on their recovery runs!)
Whilst it might seem out on the outside that it’s the hard workouts that are the toughest (for me it’s certainly the tempo runs that I struggle with). However for many it is the slowing down on easy runs that they have difficulty with. And it’s a vicious cycle. If we’re fatigued from our supposed ‘recovery’ runs, then we won’t be able to push hard enough during speed work or tempo sessions.
There’s more info at the end of this post about how to work out your easy pace, but you might be surprised by quite how much you have to slow down. Take elite runner Sally Kipyego, Olympic silver medalist in the 10km and third at the US Olympic Trials last year; her 10km pace is sub-5 min/miles yet on her easy days she’s only running an 8.30 min/mile pace, sometimes even slower. Think about your own 10km PB – are you running 3 mins+ slower than that on your easy days?!
Interestingly, my current easy pace is around 10-10.30 minute mile pace…which is 2.30-3 mins slower than my current 10K PB pace.
The Benefits of Easy Runs
Every run should have a purpose.
The primary purpose of easy runs is recovery – and many coaches would say that this is as important to your training to speedwork or long runs. These easy runs help to get build-up of lactic acid in your muscles moving, which can prevent soreness. Keeping moving after a hard session also helps to improve blood flow to your muscles, preventing them from tightening up as much as if you just sat down all day after a long run or harder workout.
Better recovery means you’ll reduce your chances of injury and be able to train with more consistency. Consistency is key to achieving your running goals!
Run slower to get faster
Time for some science: during your easy runs, you’re relying on your slow-twitch muscle fibres. These slow-twitch fibres have greater capillary density (meaning oxygen doesn’t need to travel as far from your blood vessels to your muscles) than your fast-twitch fibres, and contain more mitochondria. By using these slow-twitch fibres properly, by running at a genuinely easy pace on your easy days, you increase the above functions and improve blood flow to your muscles. This means you’re better able to utilise oxygen all round, readying you for those more intense runs.
Build your aerobic base
A few years ago, Strava looked at data from the London Marathon to try and work out exactly what it takes to run a sub-3 hour marathon. The main trend they found was that, across the board, faster times = higher average weekly mileage. Sub-3 marathoners were averaging 42 miles per week, while those in the 5+ bracket were on 14 miles per week.
While the key to getting faster definitely isn’t just ‘run more’, adding more volume to your training will help you to build a really solid base. This will boost your aerobic capacity – the better this is, the more scope you’ll have to run harder and faster when the time comes. Just make sure you’re increasing your mileage sensibly, following the 10% increase per week rule is a good starting point.
Work on your form
When you’re going absolutely flat out trying to hit a certain pace, it’s normally all you can do to concentrate on not actually dying – there’s probably not much brain space left to worry about your form or technique. Slowing down on your easy days gives you a chance to focus on your running form. The same goes if you want to start running more technical trails, for instance – easy runs allow you to work on your technique and footwork, skills you can then apply on harder days or during races.
Tips For Easy Runs
Work out your easy pace
There are a few different ways you can work out what your easy run pace should be:
– Heart rate: If you train using heart rate, you want your recovery runs to fall into Zone 1 or 2 – around 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. Try to aim for the lower end of that range. Use 180 minus your age to work out your max aerobic heart rate.
– Pace: For most of us, aiming for around 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower than your marathon pace is a good guide. If you’re aiming for a 3.30 marathon at 8 min/miles, for instance, that means your easy runs should be done at around 9.30-10.00 min/mile pace. But the slower the better, really!
– Effort: This is all about the effort you’re putting in – your body doesn’t care about the splits on your Garmin, it only cares about the stress you’re putting it under. Try leaving your watch at home some days and running purely on effort. Especially when you’re not used to them, your easy runs will feel almost ridiculously easy. Slow down, then slow down some more, then slow down a bit more.
Take a friend
The talk test is a good one to try and work out your true effort level. On easy runs you should be able to sustain a full conversation without any shortness of breath. The science behind it is that it means you’re truly training aerobically, not struggling for oxygen. So take a friend and use this as a great opportunity to catch up! If you don’t have any friends you can run with, try phoning somebody (i did this when i missed my track buddies during lockdown last year). I love doing some of my easy runs with local running friends – plus it’s far easier to get up early when you have someone to meet!
I wrote a post recently about Low Heart Rate Training. You essentially aim to complete the majority of your runs at a super low heart rate, in time enabling you to run much quicker while sustaining the same low heart rate. At first, in order to keep your heart rate low enough, most people find they need to walk at least part of their runs, and this might be true for easy runs too.
As you’ll know if you’ve read my blog for a while, I am a big fan of run-walk training. It’s a great way to keep your effort levels in check and stop your ego getting the better of you! Try 4 mins run/1 min walk and just remember to keep your run sections easy too – this isn’t meant to be an unintentional intervals session!
If you’re hooked on the adrenaline rush of harder runs, getting used to the slower pace of easy runs can be difficult. Try to enjoy it though – there’s something really relaxing about having no agenda, no targets (other than to go slow enough!), and just be able to enjoy being outside or chatting with a friend for a few miles. While you might not feel as though you’re pushing yourself physically here, easy runs are great for headspace.
Do you do recovery runs? How did you learn to slow down?