How Easy Should Easy Days Be?
One of the most confusing aspects for runners is in regards to the pace of their easy runs. Some say these runs should not be done at a pace too far away from their goal pace while others feel the pace does not matter at all. Easy runs make up the majority of weekly mileage and serve a specific purpose to training. You have probably read about professional runners performing the majority of their mileage at a pace that is up to two minutes per mile slower than their race pace. Well, if they are successful at running at lightning speed for 26.2 miles with these extremely slow training runs, we should all be trying this, right?
The Purpose of Easy Runs
During these slower-paced runs, your body is mostly using slow-twitch muscle fibers. These are the fibers that develop part of our endurance for long distances. They are made up of a higher density of mitochondria, which are the substance in our muscle cells that contribute to the production of energy. Slow twitch muscle fibers also have a higher density of capillaries—the smallest blood vessels in the body that help distribute oxygenated blood to our muscles. Increasing the density of mitochondria and capillaries means our muscles will be better trained in using oxygen, which leads to the ability to sustain faster paces.
If easy runs are performed at too fast of a pace, say close to your hard run or goal pace, then less of the slow twitch muscle fibers will be utilized. This will most likely affect your speed workouts and eventually your race pace because you will not be allowing many mitochondria and capillary growth throughout your training cycle. This is one of the reasons many runners do not see a big change in their finish times, even when their races are run far apart from each other.
Easy runs are meant to be a recovery from the hard days, hence the term “recovery run” that is frequently used in place. It is during the recovery days that adaptations from the hard speed session take place. If you are running too fast of a pace on these easy days, your body will never be in its recovery mode and never adapt to the harder paces. This will also increase burnout and injury risk. The problem some runners have when they get used to going moderate to hard every day is the slowing down part. You would think it would feel like a refreshing change, but this ends up stressing out some runners.
Is There Such Thing as Too Slow?
Yes, actually running too slow can bring negative effects to your training. This is why everyone’s easy pace is different. If your pace for these recovery runs ends up making your form faulty than it is a sign that you are running too slow. You will know this if you find yourself dragging your feet, leaning too far forward, and running with a rounded shoulders posture. One way to know if your form is being affected is if you are developing soreness after easy runs. Simply pick up the pace slightly—about 10-15 seconds per mile, on the next recovery run, and take note if it makes a difference.
There is still some research that states that going slow on some of your runs actually serves no purpose when trying to train to hit significantly fast paces. Some say easy runs, especially those that turn into jogs, are a waste of a training day and just lead to more unnecessary bodily strain. Researchers believe that significantly easy-paced runs provide no cardiovascular and metabolic stimulus that will otherwise lead to improvements in paces and endurance over time. Even given this information, the research for the benefits of actual “easy runs” is much greater.
Find YOUR Easy Pace
Runners who regularly run with a group will have the hardest time trying to find their best easy pace. It is beneficial to go for a solo run to test out what the right recovery pace is for you. A good place to start is slowing your pace down to 90 seconds to two minutes per mile slower than your goal race pace. If this keeps you with good form and actually feels ‘easy’ then keep this pace for all of your easy days. Another good strategy many runners have found useful is to utilize a heart rate monitor during easy days. Research has shown that keeping between 60% to 70% of maximum heart rate correlates with a recovery zone for running.
Once you develop a habit of running at YOUR easy pace, it will end up coming naturally to your body. Although this may mean you will have to break away from your group for some of your runs, it will only help you with the upcoming tough sessions and be completely worth it. You will most likely find that you will actually be able to run faster on your hard days and comfortably hold your goal pace for much longer!