The Easy Run: Why and How

Ah, the easy run. In theory easy runs are so simple; just run, well, easy! But in practice they’re very difficult to get right. What exactly is “easy” when it comes to running, anyway?  Is it a pace? An effort level? Is it an objective measurement? A subjective one?

Salty took care of explaining some of the basics in her post on easy runs.  She explains why it’s important to run easy for: a) recovery from workouts and races; and b) building an aerobic base. I want to dive a little deeper into easy runs. Let’s explore more about not only why it’s important to get them right, but also how! 

The Why

Think of your body as having two engines, one is a slow-burning strong engine and the other is a turbo booster. The slow-burning engine is your aerobic engine and the turbo engine is the anaerobic engine. For all the races you run, you will rely primarily on your slower-burning aerobic engine. The marathon is 97.5% aerobic and even the 5k is 84% aerobic. The stronger your aerobic engine, then, the better you will perform. And how do you strengthen your aerobic system? With lots and lots of easy running.

The engine metaphor is oversimplified, but it gets the point across. When we strengthen our aerobic systems, lots of exciting things happen that will improve our running performance. When we run at an easy pace, our bodies use more fat in our muscles for fuel instead of glycogen (sugar). Generally, we’ll burn 70% fat and 30% carbohydrates when we run easy. But as we increase our pace, that proportion shifts to eventually favor glycogen over fat. When our bodies run out of glycogen in the marathon, we know this as “hitting the wall” or bonking. So teaching our bodies to use fat more effectively and for longer periods of time is a good thing, particularly for marathoners!

As we build our aerobic systems we also disperse and grow our mitochondria (the powerhouses of our cells) and improve our hemoglobin (the protein in your red blood cells that carry oxygen). As we build our aerobic system, we also increase the amount of small blood vessels called capillaries in our muscles, which improves our ability to use oxygen when running.

The What

Runs that are easy! What? Of course that’s not helpful! Easy runs are runs that stress us just enough to allow us to recover and make those aerobic gains, but no more. You should never feel like you have to recover from an easy run or that you’re risking an injury from one. There is no benefit to running easy runs faster than, well, easy. There should be no stress or strain.

As stated in Salty’s post, you can get an idea of what pace you should be running by plugging your race times into a few different calculators online. Each one will give you a range of paces, in which your easy run pace should lay. My personal favorite is the easy-peasy McMillan Running calculator.

So, you’re feeling really great training, and your easy runs are getting faster and faster. Last year, you used to be running 9:00 mile pace, but this year, you’d really love for your easy runs to be around 7:30. Is that cool?

Slow down there, tiger, literally.

The How

Figuring our what pace is truly easy for you is much more challenging than just picking a number and forcing that pace. It’s more of an effort that matters, and how that easy effort translates to your pace can vary drastically day-to-day and training cycle-to-training cycle. It’s one of those things you figure out with practice.

But in the meantime, I asked a few fellow runners, both professional runners and recreational competitive runners, how they know what pace to run for their easy days. Here’s what they said.

Listen to your body

This is the utmost important key to an easy run. Our bodies are very good at giving us clues as to what is happening inside them. Have a cold, and feeling dragged down?  Slow it down! Had a hard work week? Is the pace that is normally easy leaving you breathy or feeling more difficult than usual? Cut yourself a break and ease up the pace. No one is going to win a t-shirt at the end of this easy run. And even more importantly, if you’re effort level is too high for an easy run, it defeats the purpose of it!

Keep it conversational

One of the most common responses I got from my professional running friends was to keep it at a pace where you can chat with your friends easily. Running alone? Paprika recommends you sing a little tune to yourself. If you’re struggling to sing between breaths, you’re probably working too hard. You can also plan out your meals for the week out loud. Trouble speaking or thinking it through? Ease up!

Watch your heart rate

Many people wear a heart rate monitor. Obviously, like pace, your easy effort heart rate is specific for you. If you know what it is, you should try to stick to it without going over. This Runner’s Connect article puts together a simple calculator for you to get an idea of where your heart rate should be!

turmeric on treadmill
Easy runs should include smiles.

Ditch the GPS

Garmin, Soleus, TomTom, whatever you have … ditch it. If you’re someone who tends to micromanage or emotionalize your pace, don’t wear it. Ignorance is bliss and much more likely to result in an easy run that’s truly easy.

Purpose, purpose, purpose

I loved this response from pro-steepler Jamie Cheever. Not to get too detailed, but Jamie was my college teammate. She and I ran together only on our slow, recovery runs, because of course, I couldn’t keep up with her otherwise. She taught me to take my recovery days extra easy, and instead give 1000% during my hard workouts. As she stated, the purpose of this planned run is to recover and be ready to attack those harder efforts.

Let go of the ego

Worried about what your Garmin Connect will look like next time your running nemesis logs on and they see you ran 9:30 pace for an easy run? I have two wise words for you: “who” and “cares”. Remember, easy days are meant to be easy so when you line up to race, you’re a caged beast ready to attack! The pace you run only matters on race day. Remember that.

***

Being pregnant now, easy running is all I am doing these days, so I am quite the expert, if I do say so myself. But even before this new stage of my life, easy running has always given me a reason to enjoy running, relax, and remember why I started running in the first place.

How do you decide what pace to run on easy days? Do you struggle with getting the effort right?

I am a full-time critical care nurse, who, in my spare time, loves to pound the pavement around the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. I am originally from Wisconsin, and ran for the University of Minnesota where I learned how to run smart, healthy, and happy. I enjoy writing about my adventures in running and what I have learned from racing. I hope to be an inspiration to other women to reach high!

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12 comments

  1. The McMillan calculator link is EVERYTHING. I didn’t know that existed. A great post and really timely as I’m trying to figure out if I’ve been running the correct paces for my training. This really helped!

  2. Great article! I have been beating myself up about running my easy runs too fast, but according to the calculator and your article, I’m doing just fine : ) As long as it feels easy and I’m chatting with my friends and don’t need to recover afterward it must be OK! Hooray! I really wasn’t looking forward to running by myself on easy days!

  3. The worst is being in awesome shape, but beat up from a workout and hitting the running path for a recovery run. You’re shuffling and some smug person passes you breathlessly and despite every fiber of your competitive being imploring you to show him/her who’s fast, you suck it up and keep on shuffling. That’s an indication you’re running the right pace :)

    1. bahaha this just happened to me today! I wanted to yell “But I qualified for Boston on Sunday!!” as they passed, but of course didn’t :)

    2. So true! Although I get passed all the time now, and can’t really go much faster, but I know deep down that if there wasn’t a human inside of me sucking the life out of me, I could pass them back!

    3. Wear your race shirts on easy days to avoid this– if you’ve got your Boston or NYC finisher shirt on you’re advertising the importance of easy runs!

  4. Love the part about nobody getting a t-shirt at the end. SO TRUE. When I accepted that part of recovery days is just to get the legs moving so I’ll feel better the next day, that helped too. When in doubt, slow down!

  5. Hooray for easy runs! I don’t look at pace at all for these, and gauge my effort level by my breathing. Breathe in for 3 stride and out for 2 (or sometimes even in for 4 and out for 3) means it’s easy enough. Usually I just leave my Garmin at home, unless I’m running a new route and want to measure the distance.