I used to think every run I went on needed to feel like I was dying. I used to think every run needed to be a full-throttle, 100% effort. In middle school, every run was an all-out effort. We did a 2-mile warm-up around a field in the back of my school, and I was always breathing so hard trying to keep up with the top guys in my school.
I did get better as a runner, and I did get faster. But what I realized was I got better despite going all out every single run, not because of it. I was burning myself out midway through seasons by treating every run like an all-out race. I thought “easy runs” were for cowards. I thought if you were a serious runner, you had to try super hard and treat every run like your last.
It took a solid relationship and trust with my high school cross country coach to realize how misguided I was. I wanted to run fast every race, so I went out super hard in each race. I responded whenever someone passed me in a race. I thought every second of a 5k race meant giving it everything I had.
And then I bombed our second most important race of that season. I ran slow, but it felt really hard to run slow. Instead, he said pacing myself, slowing down, and taking it easy would help me run faster. And he was right — the next week, I ran all my runs except a workout and the next race easy. Come race time, I felt rested, and I ran the best race of my life up to that point.
That episode taught me the value of easy runs. 80% of my runs are easy runs. I do one or two hard efforts a week, but that’s it. Everything else is easy, and now I’m in the best shape of my life.
I learned going all out all the time was misguided
According to John Kissane at Runner’s World, slow easy running works out slow-twitch muscle fibers, fibers that have more mitochondria and aerobic enzymes than the fast-twitch muscles used by sprinters. You want your slow twitch muscles to better utilize oxygen, and you want them to recover. Kissane interviews coaches who say easy running helps promote cardiovascular and muscular-structural development.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking easy days are for beginners. However, easy days are necessary for seasoned and elite runners too. After hard efforts and races, every runner needs to recover. And during recovery, gains in fitness from hard efforts take place. A runner who does not recover eventually burns themselves out and gets injured.
So while we know the benefits of easy runs, what is easy? What pace should you be running for an easy run? My coaches have all taught me it’s less important how fast easy runs are, but more important how easy runs feel. Simply put, an easy run should not feel like you’re running very hard. If 6-minute mile pace is your easy run, you should run that pace. If 9-minute mile pace is your easy pace, you should run that pace.
And that leads into the next point:
What’s easy varies over the course of your training
When I first started running seriously again, running 9-minute miles was my easy pace. After really hard workouts and races, I still run 9-minute mile pace sometimes.
There is, however, a misconception that often comes with running easy. People in the running world say all the time “Kenyan runners do their runs really easy,” which is only partially true. Scott Douglas, a running coach writing for Running Warehouse, notes that’s a faulty comparison because we likely don’t live at 8,000 feet of altitude.
And elite, Olympic-level Kenyan runners often start their runs easy. Douglas ran with several runners who started out very slow and then finished much faster. At no point were the runners not relaxed.
To me, the reason behind the start slow, finish fast model is clear. The run feels easy the whole time, but easy pace changes as the run go on. If you run regularly, it’s likely the start of your runs feels like crap. Your legs feel heavy and sore.
I personally don’t even get into a rhythm until the fourth or fifth mile of every run. For me, 6:10 mile pace at mile 8 can feel as easy as 8-minute mile pace at mile one. It’s tough to explain why, but having your body be more warmed up means faster paces feel easier.
I don’t have that kind of progression on every easy run. But when the lesson is simple: easy runs should feel easy.
If you want a more set and less open interpretation of what easy means, running coach Laura Norris notes easy runs should not accumulate lactic acid, and should be below your aerobic threshold. Running below aerobic threshold utilizes fat oxidation and carbohydrates and places significantly less stress on the body.
Other common metrics for what should constitute easy pace are your heart rate and breathing. An easy-paced run should be 60–75% of your max heart rate, and you shouldn’t be breathing hard at all. A conversation should feel easy. If you want to add some spice and speed to the end of your easy runs, do strides. Strides are short sprints at 85% to 90% of your max effort, usually no longer than 150 meters. They will accustom you to running fast, and they’re usually done before big workouts and races.
But the core message remains: to become a faster runner, keep your easy runs easy. You’re not superhuman, and you can’t afford to go all out every day.
Originally published on In Fitness And In Health on April 22, 2021.