Easy runs aren’t the sexiest topic. They don’t generally impress anyone. There’s no ego boost when you jump off the treadmill having never clicked the accelerate button more than a couple of times. Heck, sometimes you hardly break a sweat. The worst is when you’re behaving and running really easy and some dude comes up behind you breathing loudly and slobbering with his feet slapping on the ground as he passes you all proud of himself that he’s running faster than a chick … pushing a toddler in a stroller the day after she nailed mile repeats, but I digress. You know what? Forget that guy. Sometimes slower is better, no matter what the cost to the ego.
But is slower always better? Is there a proper easy pace and if so, how does one go about finding it? What does “conversational” pace mean? What if what someone says should be your easy run pace is hard or feels way too easy? What is easy!?
Before you decide on pace, remember the purpose.
Easy runs serve mainly two purposes in your training. First, they build your aerobic base (your heart and lungs) without subjecting you to much injury risk. Secondly, they help you recover from the harder runs in your training schedule. Easy runs, when run at the appropriate effort level, protect you from injury. Running easy runs too fast is a problem because while you will still build your aerobic base running too fast, any gains from running faster than necessary are offset by an increased injury risk. Additionally, running easy runs too fast will impede your recovery from hard days, whether you are running your easy run as a recovery run or not. Either way, you’re playing with fire when running too fast and the benefits are not worth the risks.
So how do we know what the proper pace is for our easy runs?
One of the founding fathers of modern run-training Jack Daniels, author of the book Daniel’s Running Formula, came up with his handy-dandy VDOT chart for determining the proper training paces. According to Daniels, easy runs should be run about 50 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace or approximately 1:45 slower than 5k pace.
The handy and popular McMillan calculator breaks it down a little further and separates easy runs into two types: recovery runs and easy runs (I do not consider long runs easy runs so we will ignore his pace suggestions for long runs for now). Below is a screen grab of the calculations for someone who runs a 5k around 7:00 pace, or 21:40ish.
As you can see, McMillan’s suggestions are similar to Daniels’, with McMillan’s easy pace range around 1:30 to 2:00 slower than 5k pace and 30 to 60 seconds slower than marathon pace. However, McMillan also includes recovery pace which is significantly slower than easy pace: up to 3:00 slower than 5k pace and 2:00 slower than marathon pace.
The problem is that it’s not always clear when to run recovery pace and when to run easy pace if you’re not following one of McMillan’s training plans. I would suggest merging the Recovery Jogs and Easy Runs and saying the correct range of easy for this runner is anywhere between 8:34 and 10:04 or 1:30 to 3:00 slower than 5k pace.
Ninety seconds to three minutes slower than 5k pace, while a big range, is a good guide and gives you wide latitude to listen to your body. In general, it’s best to err on the side of slower if you’re unsure. If you’re starting out you might start an easy run on the slow end of the range and pick it up over the course of the run to the faster end of the range if you feel good. If you tend to be very in tune with your body then you will know if you are feeling tired or beat up after a hard day necessitating a run in the slower part of the easy pace range.
Remember the key word for these runs is EASY. So, it’s the effort that matters and not the actual pace. If you’re feeling confident you know what easy effort should feel like, eschew your watch and go with whatever your legs want to do. But no matter how you determine the right effort or pace, easy means easy. You shouldn’t be panting during or red-faced after the run. You should be able to easily hold a conversation in which you can laugh and gesture. Being able to spurt out a word or two in between breaths, while possibly allowing one to maintain a conversation, is not what is meant by the term “conversational pace”. An easy run should feel comfortable the whole time.
Personally, I tend to be a relatively slow easy runner. By that, I mean I tend to run on the slow end of my easy range and often slower than other runners with similar race times. I typically only run in the faster side of my easy range when I’m in a down cycle and not doing a lot of hard workouts or high miles. I rarely go under 8:00 pace outside of my hard days, even when some dude is breathing down my neck and feeling like super stud passing me as I slog out my 9:00’s or whatever. I’d rather stay injury free and kick his butt in a race … and, more importantly, I rather enjoy training than constantly feeling like I have to hit this or that pace. Running my easy runs at a truly easy-feeling pace keeps me loving it.
How do you determine your easy pace? Do you tend to be a relatively fast or slower easy runner?