When It Comes to Running, What Is Easy?

Easy is easier with friends.
Easy is easier with friends.

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.

imageRemember 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?

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. Currently recovering from my third pregnancy, heart surgery, diastasis recti, low iron/vitamin D, sciatic nerve impingement, overtraining, mono. What can I say? I'm stubborn.

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14 comments

  1. I do my easy runs (well all of my runs) based off HR. Easy days are 60-75% of max HR, which still gives quite a bit of range to modify depending on how I feel, weather, etc. I have a screen setting on my Garmin that just shows HR, which keeps me from looking at the pace! It took a while to get used to going that slow when I started working with my coach, but as we increased the intensity of the hard days, and increased weekly mileage, my body said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going this pace.” I have a couple of friends getting back into running so these are great days for us to get together and it makes those slogs go by faster!

  2. No watch on easy runs! I know all my easy run routes and just plug in the mileage. When it’s cool out and I’m feeling good my easy pace might be 7:20 or under. Hot days and the day after a workout I wouldn’t be surprised if the first couple of miles are 9:00 or slower. But then I don’t really know for sure. Love that!

  3. Oh – I needed this. I run by feel, so easy runs are typically RPE (rate of perceived exertion) 3-4. Speedwork is a 7 (depending on the speedwork). Tempo a 5-6. I do have to pay attention to pace, mostly as it concerns being late for other stuff/ having enough time to get home, shower, and cook dinner ;)

    1. Assigning numbers to effort (or pain for that matter) doesn’t really compute for me. I just know the right efforts when I feel them. When I am really fit, I can lock in to the right effort pretty easily and can tell if I’m having an off day when the right effort is off pace. But it’s so subjective that it’s not exactly conducive to using for advice!

      1. Interestingly there’s evidence that the numbers-based pain scale is both sensitive (can detect smaller differences in someone’s experience of pain) and valid (people will consistently report a particular degree of stimulus as the same number across many instances)*! So I imagine the RPE scale behaves similarly. It’s definitely more useful when you have a lot of data about your individual experience of effort – i e you’re an experienced runner who knows what ‘really hard’ feels like. But then, a total beginner might not have a whole lot of information about their 5k or marathon pace either…

  4. Thank you for this! I always run by feel on my easy days and sometimes thats 9:00/mile, and sometimes it’s 7:45/mile. It’s so so important for recovery- and easy days are an underrated part of staying healthy!

    1. With a 6:10ish marathon PR pace, that range lines up perfectly with McMillan! And I think it says a lot that the fastest pace you run for easy runs is slower than a lot of people run with much slower PRs than you.

  5. I used to run WAY too fast on my easy runs all of the time. Thank the stars I never really burned out from it but I’m sure my race times would have been even faster had I not done that. These days I don’t care about the pace and just generally go by effort, and even heart rate. I don’t use HR training all of the time, but for easy stuff it’s helpful to have that number to gauge where I am at and if my body agrees that I’m running easy. I do still have days where my “easy pace” is closer to the faster end of the range but I also have the days it’s on the much slower end.I’m still able to hit workouts harder, and recovering faster so clearly running slower helped me!

  6. Great post! I try not to worry about pace on my easy runs, though I do still wear my garmin. It’s interesting to see how my pace varies, depending on how my body is feeling! I find it helpful to run my easy runs solo too – less temptation to speed up.

    What about stroller running on easy days/recovery days? My pace goes way down, but it’s certainly harder on my body!

    1. I almost never wear a watch with the stroller. I would think the stroller would magnify the variability of pace at an easy effort. Also, it magnifies the effects of things like headwinds and hills on pace too. And the degree of flatness of the tires makes a big difference too!

    2. Hi Jesse! I still wear my garmin on easy days too, but I switch the screen over to the digital clock face so I don’t get caught up in my pace :) Maybe you already do this, but I really find it helps me not constantly look at my pace!

  7. As you’ve said – “easy” is an effort.
    It will vary day to day with recovery, health, mood, weather, and the color of your shoes.
    There’s no hit to the ego when you know you’ll take slappy-foot Sam down in your next race. In fact, you can feel smug running easily knowing that you’re doing The Right Thing while hyperventilating Hannah is just begging for an injury.