I’ve been asked a number of times in recent weeks, both directly and indirectly, about how easy an easy run should be. It’s a good question, and one that I’ve done an unnecessary amount of research on for my own benefit in the past.
The easy run is an essential part of any training plan. Whether you’re training for a 5km or a half marathon, almost every training plan has at least one ‘easy run’ scheduled in per week. The benefit of the easy run is that it improves your endurance, allowing you to run for longer. It builds the aerobic base required for racing across any distance. It also aids recovery on days after hard sessions. The easy run is possibly the most important run that exists (or should) in your schedule.
The issue with the easy run is that not everyone understands just how easy it should be. There are various articles around on the web, from very reputable trainers, that suggest that the biggest mistake runners make, is not running slow enough on easy days. Falling victim to this means that your run falls into the category of ‘junk miles,’ meaning that the workout has had no specific benefit to your running. I don’t particularly like the term junk miles as this suggests that the run was not worth it. Miles under the feet are still miles at the end of the day. Sure, you might not have improved your speed, and you might not have improved your economy, but you still managed a cardio workout, which is far better than staying slumped on the settee. You can improve your economy and performance though by keeping it slow enough to stay out of this zone.
I think one of the issues with runners not going slow enough, is due to feeling embarrassed about a slow pace being posted on Strava or some other equivalent. Therefore they run an easy run at a pace that they want to be seen as being easy, rather than one that actually feels easy, and by their own admission (some). On Strava I’ve seen an easy run one day at 8:13/mile and then a ‘fast 5’ a couple of days later at 8:08/mile, by the same person. There needs to be a clear distinction between the two, and easy is not half marathon pace, and neither is it marathon pace.
So how easy should easy be then? You need to slow down, slow right down, to a pace that almost feels like you’re not moving in comparison to your natural pace, and then you’ve almost got it. There are three ways of determining just how slow you should be running:
Heart rate is possibly the most accurate of the three, as this takes into account inclines and declines. First of all, you want to have previously discovered your HR zones based on whichever method you choose. Then, for an easy run, you do not want to venture outside of your zone 2. For me, this is as low as 145. It can be difficult to maintain this when going up big hills, but it’s key to maintain an average.
Again, difficult when going up hills, but breathing during an easy run should not be heavy or difficult. Your breathing rate should be calm, rhythmic and you should be able to breath without opening your mouth, meaning you can breath in and out entirely through your nose.
There’s an excellent calculator online (I have a version embedded on this site here) from Jack Daniels that provides you with training paces based on a recent race result. The methods adopted by Jack Daniels are somewhat scientific, and he coaches some of the finest distance runners in America. The calculator is accurate only if you use a recent race result. For example if you run a 22:00 parkrun, and then a 22:30 four weeks later, you should use the 22:30 as that is the most recent. Do not enter a goal time as this will not give you correct training paces for you. As an example, I am currently training for a sub-1:40 half marathon and my most recent race time is a 21:48 parkrun. Based on the parkrun result, the calculator suggests that my easy runs should be almost 2 minutes slower per mile than my target half marathon pace, 8:56-9:31 or 5:33-5:55 per km. For an 8:00/mile or 5:00/km pace to be considered as easy, you need to be 19 minute 5k’er or a 39 minute 10k’er.
It seems almost counterintuitive to run and it be genuinely easy, but the benefits are great. Don’t worry about the ’embarrassing’ pace on Strava afterwards, just make sure you nail your goal, and you will be the last one laughing. Make the easy runs truly easy.