When It Comes to Easy Runs, Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?

tortoise or hare runner?Most weekends I do a longer run with my friend Mina and most weekends I find myself feeling like I’m holding her back, that if it were up to her she’d be running a little faster. Meanwhile, I feel the exact opposite: that if it were up to me, I’d be slogging along more slowly, at least for the first few miles.

During a recent Sunday, as I simultaneously struggled to hold us back and keep up, Mina told me how her weekday easy runs have been faster than they “should” be. In 7:40-7:50 range, her easy runs now are faster than my easy runs have ever been, even at my peak fitness, when I ran 6:34 pace for a half marathon in tropical weather. Back then 8:30s were truly easy and anything under 8:00 happened with intention.

But this isn’t anything new. All my running life, people who ran similar race times to me almost invariably ran their easy runs way faster than I did. Even after all these years, I’m still amazed how 30 seconds slower than half marathon pace can feel easy to someone, when two minutes slower is sometimes barely slow enough for me!

How do some people run their easy runs so fast, when others, like me, find they must run relatively very slow to keep their efforts easy? 

Maybe it’s because back in 2004 when I started running, there was no social media of any import (yeah, I forgot about Friendster too), there was no Strava or widespread online log stalking, or famous running bloggers, but whatever the reason, I have never been one to run my easy runs too fast. I didn’t pay much attention at all to what other runners did as I trained for my first half or my first marathon and then as my curiosity about others’ training increased from there, I guess I didn’t spend too much time worrying about what pace they ran their easy runs.

So when I started to find other people to train with who raced similar times to me, I was shocked to discover they often ran their easy runs considerably faster than I did. After I broke 1:30 in the half marathon for the first time, running 1:28:48 in May of 2007, I decided to train with my eye on a sub-three marathon. Why not? Even then, I regularly ran my mid-week easy runs slower than 8:30 pace, often 9:00 or slower, but others who raced times similar to mine were running easy runs under 8:00 most of the time. I tried this a couple of times and did not like it. I enjoyed my plods.

More recently, I trained with a team and we shared our training logs with each other and our coach. I was often embarrassed by how slow my easy runs were compared to my teammates. Even the teammates who raced or ran workouts at similar times to me were blowing my easy run pace away by 60 to 90 seconds per mile! Sometimes I’d succumb to self-imposed pressure and try to run my easy runs faster, but it impacted my ability to perform on workout days and, more importantly, my enjoyment of running overall.

While I intellectually know that easy is an effort and not a pace and that it’s perfectly acceptable for a good runner to run really slowly relative to her race times, I guess I always had this nagging question about whether there was something weird about me that caused me to run so slow most of the time when others did not.

And sure, every runner is different, but what makes one a slow easy runner and someone else a fast one? Is Mina or others who run their easy runs relatively faster than I do, running them too fast? How can they know? Could I be running mine too slow?

When I contemplate things like this, I always look to the purpose of the run. Back during 2011, the year I was most fit and training my best, I did five runs a week with quality running, meaning I had five runs a week that were not truly easy. One day was just strides, but I did a medium intensity semi-long run that was around marathon pace, slightly slower at best, a long run, a tempo run, and a track workout. That’s a lot of quality running. It’s no wonder I was slogging the rest of the runs so slowly. I was tired and those runs weren’t just easy, they were truly recovery runs. I needed them to be that slow, and probably slower!

tortoise or hair runner

There have been times in my running life when I wasn’t doing hard training, but was pretty fit, and my easy times were quicker than usual. And I think I was adequately recovering and training and racing at my best when I’d ditch the watch all together and just estimate my easy distance. If I was comfortable, yet sweating and elevating my heart rate, surely that’s good enough. The legendary Jack Daniels says the most important thing about easy runs is to keep the effort, well, easy!

Lately, I’m not training for anything. The purpose of my runs is to enjoy them — to enjoy the scenery, the company, the physicality, the run. If I feel like running fast, then I’ll run fast, but if I don’t, that defeats the purpose no matter what pace I should run.

But looking back, I think enjoying running is always part of the purpose, and keeping easy runs enjoyable surely helped get through those tough training runs and races while preserving the run love.

Are you a tortoise or a hare when it comes to your easy runs?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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21 comments

  1. I think you have to look at it in the big picture of your entire training schedule. The more mileage you’re running, the slower your easy runs will likely be. The more workouts you’re running, the slower your easy runs will be. I think I’m average; not a tortoise but not a hare, as I’d guess that my average easy run pace is about 60 seconds slower than my goal marathon pace (6:17 GMP, and easy runs are generally 7:15ish, but I’ll have days of 6:50 and days of 8:00 because I really try to go by feel!).

    I once read that it’s not necessarily that some people run all of their easy runs at marathon pace, it’s that these people are simply running their marathons at their easy pace. I liked this concept, because anytime I run marathon pace in training it’s work!

  2. just came across this post…but major, major, major tortoise. Always been that way and I’m honestly puzzled as to why. I’ve run under 3:20 in the marathon and in the low 1:30’s for the half-in that training cycle my easy pace was around 8:30-8:45…and it always seemed like I was a “group back” from others with around the same race times. Once I got into a slump and my easy run paces started slipping into the high 8’s-low 9’s, it became even harder to find groups to keep up with. And mentally it just gets to me-how are these people that I should be able to keep pace with in a race, if not finish way ahead of, killing me on easy/long runs? Sadly, the whole “easy pace” issue has sort of killed my enjoyment of the sport…it’s not fun when you have to stress out about if you can just “hang on” for more than a mile.

    1. I was pretty much the same way. I’d have friends who would swear they knew they were getting in shape when they’re easy run pace would speed up, but that just never seemed to happen to me despite race times and workouts getting faster and faster. Who knows!

  3. I have been a hare, despite my coach consistently telling me to slow down my recovery runs…and now I’m sidelined by a pelvic stress fracture :( When I come back, I will be intentionally channeling the tortoise. I think Strava does have something to do with it for sure, but also I think less experienced runners (me) still don’t trust the process and believe that it will pay off in the end!!

  4. I have been making a serious effort to become more of a tortoise! I naturally run my easy runs on the quicker side. This is one area where Strava has actually helped. I noticed runners who were WAY faster than me (like Chicory and Paprika, for example), ran their easy runs SLOWER than me. To the point where I felt silly running recovery runs in the 7:50 range when they should have been more like 8:50. Anyway, I’m a hare striving to be a tortoise to answer your question!

  5. It’s fascinating how much variability there is from runner to runner – even if your race performances are the same, your easy effort might be someone else’s no-man’s-land between tempo and easy. I am team Tortoise all the way, and I don’t even have to try to slow down, I just naturally end up at 2-4 minutes slower than my half pace for recovery/ long runs. What does frustrate me, though, is how darn long I take!

  6. Interesting! I am also someone who runs my easys very easy. I have a training buddy that I do all my long runs with. I am a few minutes faster than her over all race distances, but her “regular” runs are always quicker!

    1. Yeah! When I first started training with others, I’d do my workouts with faster people and easy runs with slower people. It’s a great system :)

  7. I’m in the same boat as you right now, Salty. If I feel like running sloooooooow I run slow, if I feel like running fast I run fast. I just want to enjoy running the way I did before I ever had watches, social media, before ever running with groups. Prior to all that I seriously enjoyed my runs. Then as I got social I started comparing myself to others and it just started not to be fun. Then one day I said ” fuck all this” and went back to anti-social and am enjoying myself again. Lol. Whatever works I guess.

  8. I’m older and wiser and am such a tortoise on easy days. Verbatim comment from my coach this week:
    “If people only knew what a sub 3 marathoner runs on the recovery days.”

    I regularly run 90 seconds slower than marathon pace. What I’ve learned is that by slowing down, I can run more miles and more days of the week. For the most part, I keep an eye on my heart rate and combine that with perceived effort on those days.

    1. I do wonder whether some runners are just used to running at a higher intensity than others or if maybe our aerobic systems are calibrated differently. Who knows. But I’m with you. I am a happier runner when I’m turtlin’!

  9. I definitely always used to be the hare. Running faster than should-be easy runs worked for me. It took some accountability to get me to slow down. Obviously, I found I could hit better workouts if I slowed down on other days.

    The past year or two I made a point to schedule easy and recovery runs on my training plan. Recovery runs after long or hard workouts, where I made a point to stick to low HR and VERY easy/slow pace. Then on “Easy”days I still make a point to go slower but give myself a little more leeway if I am feeling good but not working too hard. This helped my training physically and mentally.

    1. I always admire how you can be a data junky and still get these things right. I cannot pay too much attention to numbers or else I start second-guessing myself!

      1. The numbers help me in the sense that I don’t trust myself to go by effort alone. Numbers don’t lie. Numbers are how I hold myself accountable!

  10. Dude, first of all, you so don’t hold me back. I’m becoming much more tortoise-like. And while I am training for something now (my first marathon), my #1 goal is simply to enjoy it. All of it. The process and the race. I think for me, I am running the easy too fast because injuries/tweaks start popping up. A little over a week ago, my upper hamstring started bugging me. And with having had a stress fracture under a year ago, I’m starting to get a bit gun shy. Of course every once in a while the monster in the back of my head starts thinking about times, but I really don’t want to focus on that.

    1. HAHA. Ok, maybe I’m just paranoid! But it was that conversation we had that reminded me of this internal debate I have about this topic, more than the actual runs for the record!