Of all the things runners find most difficult, performing an easy run is at the top of the list for most runners. If you don’t think this is true for you, it is even more likely this is the case.
That’s right, easy runs are anything but easy.
On it’s face this does not make sense, but failing to properly execute easy runs are often the culprit for injuries, poor performance in harder workout sessions, falling short of expectations on race day and not reaching your potential as a runner.
Why is this?
Just about all of the reasons can be traced back to mental discipline and lack of knowledge.
Five Reasons Why Easy Runs are Difficult
1. They are often not viewed as critical to successful training and are the first to be dropped in a busy schedule
2. There is a misconception that easy runs are “junk miles”
3. The shorter distance of some easy runs leads runners to run them harder than prescribed to feel like they are doing anything worthwhile
4. Running fast becomes easier as you improve making running slower a challenging exercise
5. The benefits of easy runs are not widely understood beyond “recovering” from a hard workout
Overlooked Benefits of Easy Running
Have a look at all of the benefits that your easy runs provide you as a runner. These components are all critical to your running ability, yet easy running is one of the most effective ways to improve on all of them simultaneously.
Let’s take a look as to why each of these are important and how easy running supports these developments in runners.
Slow Twitch Muscle Fiber Development
Slow twitch muscle fibers are the workhorse for you as a runner. They are extremely efficient at using oxygen to generate fuel for continuous muscle contractions over a long timeframe. They are aerobic in nature meaning they can operate for a long period of time without fatigue. If you run distance events, they are key for success.
Unfortunately, genetics play a role in how many you have, but easy running can help you develop more of these precious fibers. The reason for this is the slower runs recruit these fibers and repeated activity demand more be created in response. While there is a limit to what you can develop, you want as many as you can.
As a bonus, slow twitch muscle fibers provide a host of other benefits including the ability to burn fat for energy (key to not hitting the wall in a marathon) and an increased amount of capillaries and mitochondria.
Increased Capillary Capacity
An increased capillary capacity means that oxygen can be exchanged in your cells more efficiently. This means your muscles can get the oxygen they need to keep running faster the more your capillaries are developed. Think of a highway being congested and adding more lanes – the result is more efficient travel.
Distance running is largely an aerobic activity. On the most basic level, mitochondria are our aerobic engines that power this activity. A key purpose is to burn fat to convert to energy. The more you require your body to do this they will adapt to the demand and over the course of several months grow larger in size to handle the increased load. As mentioned, your ability to burn fat is a key way to help avoid crashing during your runs of longer distances.
Aerobic capacity is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can utilize during any form of exercise. As a newer runner, you may not be able to run for a very long period of time before your heart rate increases and you become winded. As you progress or if you are an experienced runner this time is extended by your increased aerobic capacity.
Easy running enables your lungs and cardiovascular system to more efficiently deliver oxygen and for your heart to deliver more blood which by consequence means more oxygen can be carried.
If you are looking to run longer distances at a given pace, easy running specifically trains the aerobic systems that make this possible.
Fat Burning For Energy
As your pace becomes faster you will need more carbohydrates to sustain your faster pace. The ability for your body to burn fat efficiently for energy can reduce the need for excessive amount of carbohydrate and leave you less likely to hit the wall.
As mentioned, easy running promotes mitochondria development which improve your ability to source more energy from fat for a longer period of time.
Increased Running Economy
Easy running promotes improved running economy. Think of running economy as being similar to fuel economy in your car. The more miles per gallon (MPG) the further you can drive on the same amount of fuel compared to a car that is less economical. Your running economy is the amount of oxygen that is needed to run a given pace.
The more economical you are with oxygen, the less of it you will need to run a given pace compared to another runner.
A runner that needs less oxygen to sustain a given pace can run longer at that pace than one who requires more oxygen.
Improved Muscle Tendon Strength
Running puts additional pressure on your tendons and joints. As you increase your pace the force increases.
Easy running allows your body to gradually adapt and strengthen your tendons to be able to sustain greater forces. If you run your easy runs too fast you are putting an increased load on your tendons in addition to harder workouts that are especially demanding. This increases the risk of injury.
Bone density is improved through easy running. Sustained faster pace running puts increased stress on the bones just as with the case of muscle tendons. Bones that are subjected to repeated high intensity efforts are more likely to fracture.
However, sustained easy running puts less pressure on the bones and causes them to adapt to your running and become stronger to support increased activity.
Increased Glycogen Storage
Glycogen is a form of energy storage. When you increase your carbohydrate intake in the weeks before a race your body stores some of the excess in the form of glycogen. But it will only store what is often demanded. As a runner, you will tax your body and the glycogen reserves through longer stretches of easy running.
Since the body adapts to change it will increase the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles and liver to sustain longer periods of running. Run too fast and you will tax your anaerobic system instead and not get to the point where you can cause adaptations to your ability to store glycogen.
The more glycogen you can store, the less carbohydrate you will need to consume when running to fuel a given amount of effort, the longer you can put off needing to burn fat in a race such as the marathon and you push back the time you are likely to hit the wall.
Base Mileage Building
In order to sustain longer distance runs and also your ability to perform harder workouts at your best you need a proper running base to effectively do so. You can run more miles at an easier effort than at a harder effort. In terms of building a base to support your formalized training easy running is the most effective manner to accomplish this.
While true rest days are important, running a slower paced effort following a longer distance run helps promote circulation, removal of waste products and has some scientific evidence to suggest it speeds recovery. This is only in the form of an easy effort. A hard effort following a hard effort can lead to overtraining.
Impact Of Improper Execution of Easy Runs
Without easy runs as part of your training plan, you miss out on all of these benefits that are critical to your success.
Allowing your easy runs to become run at a faster pace is not improving you as a runner, but rather training entirely different energy systems that you are likely targeting in harder workouts such as speed sessions. If easy runs are always run at a harder than necessary pace you will experience reduced performance on your harder workout days and stress the body to the point of risking injury and overtraining.
Your aerobic system is what will power a majority of your running, and almost all of your distance running. Fast running does not train your aerobic system but rather your anaerobic system instead. As a result you don’t improve the foundation of your energy system for running.
On the flipside, you do want to make sure that you are not running too easy that you are barely exercising. If you run your easy runs too slow you are also getting none of the benefits described above and instead just wearing down your body without aerobic benefit.
Strategies for Effective Easy Running
Easy runs are best performed at 1 – 2 minutes slower than your projected marathon pace, regardless of the distance you are training for.
If you are newer to running, focus on time on your feet at a slower pace for your easy running. More advanced runners can run the faster side of the range if desired.
A GPS watch or heart rate monitor can be an effective way to monitor your pace or effort while performing an easy run. Make an effort to feel what an easy pace feels like and train your body to be comfortable getting into rhythm at the slower pace. This may require you having to consistently monitor your pace and making a concerted effort to slow down often. It will become easier with experience.
For running with a heart rate monitor, you should not be running in excess of 60% of your max heart rate.
Value Your Easy Days
Hopefully you now appreciate the importance of easy running as part of your training and how skipping them, running them faster than prescribed or considering them as junk miles is putting you at a disadvantage. Just because you don’t feel as spent at the end of an easy run compared to a harder effort does not mean it is any less worthy of a workout or requires modification to make it seem worthwhile.
The more knowledge you have about the purpose of each run you do, the easier it will be to stick to your training plan and ultimately achieve your running goals.