Get Faster and Avoid Injury: Slow Down Your Easy Days!

When it comes to easy runs, this girl knows what she's doing. Flickr Commons image by lightmatter.
When it comes to easy runs, this lady knows what she’s doing. Flickr Commons image by lightmatter.

So, the last time you heard from me, I preached the gospel of taking time for not running to improve your running. I’m not done suggesting counterintuitive stuff! Indeed, today I’m going to talk about running slower in order to race faster. What the heck?!

I used to be a consistent 21-22 minute 5k runner through college, eventually progressing to break 18:00 at the age of 26 and run 16:56 at 30. I made a lot of changes in order to achieve these improvements, but the one big thing that did not budge has been my easy day pace. I still run about 8:30-8:45 average on non-workout days. Yes, this is a full 3 minutes slower than 5k PR pace! Check out my training logs for proof.

Why do I run so (relatively) slowly?

First, as I’ve increased my weekly mileage over the years, my legs are more tired on a daily basis.  I’ve also learned to run my workouts harder which contributes to the cumulative fatigue. A good slow run helps move the blood around and loosen up my stiff muscles. If you are a lower-mileage runner or not doing tempo or speed workouts you may be able to get away with a brisker pace.

Another factor in my average pace is the inclusion of an organic warm-up: I allow myself to shuffle the first mile or so. This drags down the overall average pace. A 3-mile shakeout often is the slowest run of the week because I’ve barely had time to warm up!

Why should you slow down?
Slowing down your easy pace will help you increase weekly mileage and the intensity of your workouts. Both higher mileage and faster workouts are associated with faster race times. Slow down to get fast!

Easing off the intensity of your easy days will also reduce your injury risk. An easier pace is gentler on your musculoskeletal system while still giving you the benefits of aerobic exercise. I haven’t lost more than two consecutive days of training to injury in over 10 years (also aided by my strict system of a biannual break from running).

Slowing down may also make these basic runs more enjoyable. Rather than monitoring your watch, check out the scenery or focus on conversation with your running partner. When I have sought out coaching, one of my stipulations is that I can continue to run how I feel on non-workout days — for me, the pleasure of running is an intangible factor in reaching my goals.

She runs way slower on her easy days. Flickr Commons image by Andrew Pescod.
She runs way slower on her easy days. Flickr Commons image by Andrew Pescod.

How to slow down?
Some of you might be able to skip this section, but I’ve heard from a surprising number of runners that backing off is difficult. Here’s a few tips:

  • Find a slower run buddy, preferably someone who will be assertive if you accidentally push the pace.
  • Wear your “slow clothes.” For me, these are my baggy old shorts and heaviest shoes — essentially the opposite of my race day outfit.
  • Use your GPS or heart rate monitor as a leash. Some devices have settings that will beep annoyingly if you exceed a set pace or heart rate.
  • Run for time rather than distance. Sometimes we inadvertently speed up in order to get X miles done in our allotted time slot. If you only have 45 minutes, plan on 45 minutes rather than squeezing in, say, 5 miles.
  • Avoid the comparison game whether it’s comparing your paces to someone else’s, a pace calculator, or to your previous speed on a certain route. Save your competitiveness for race day.
  • Take into account terrain, weather, and other factors. Give yourself even more leeway for a slow pace if you’re at altitude, running through snow, or training on hills.

What’s your easy day pace in comparison to your PRs? Have you slowed down or sped up your easy days? How are the results? 

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. I really believe in this! I used to always run my easy runs around 8:30 pace. Even when I was at my fittest it felt too fast to run faster. I used to get down on myself especially when I would see so many other runners running so much faster all the time. But I now really believe that for most of us (some certainly can get away with it, but not many) running easy runs too fast will stagnate your training and you’ll just be spinning your wheels. I find that it helps me to not wear a watch so I can’t judge myself and I just lope along at whatever pace and enjoy myself. I like the frumpy clothes idea! That’s a good one 🙂

    1. I am also amazed by how some people are able to run faster on easy days. Seems to tend to be people who had a lot of running success early (i.e. high school & college) but I wonder if it’s more of a natural set pace or habit from group settings? It often seems to be a team thing.

      1. Yes! I’ve noticed that too! Most of my buddies who ran in college seem to hammer their easy runs (relatively anyway). I always wondered why that was!

  2. I always run about 1:30-2 min/mile slower than 5K pace on easy days – and during the first 2-3 miles of my run sometimes it’s even close to 3 min/mile slower! I don’t plan it that way – it just seems to be what my legs do. I used to worry about this, like shouldn’t my easy pace be getting faster as my race/workout paces get faster, but then I found out that even many of the standout Kenyan marathoners run their easy days super slow. A lot of times I take my dog with me for the first few miles of my run; at least then, I can blame my slow pace on him 🙂

    1. My easy day pace sometimes gets even SLOWER when my race times get faster! When I ran my 2:51, I had some days I averaged >9:00 pace. My workouts that season were almost deadly.

  3. This is a very timely and encouraging post. And as always, I am so inspired by your running story of transforming from a 21-22 minute 5k runner to an elite marathoner. During my first run of my marathon cycle yesterday, I kept things very easy, never going over 9:30 pace. It was kind of a nice feeling holding back on an easy run. I really think it’s so important when you have goals of building mileage and don’t want to get hurt.

    1. Thank you, Ginger! I think these slow runs will really be key in marathon training, especially the enjoyment aspect!

  4. I am in the middle of a hansons training plan, so I have been forced to slow down. I feel like I’ve seen benefits, although the hardest part for me is the increased time commitment. I am a slower runner, so my easy pace runs are between 11:00-11:30/mile and the extra time adds up quickly!

    1. Hi, Molly! The increased time commitment is definitely hard to get over. Even an extra 5 minutes per run is hard to find as a busy woman, right? Be patient with yourself. Better to keep the effort at the correct level and run a little shorter than push too hard. It will pay off!

  5. This was a great article, thank you! I know I need to slow down for slow runs and this article really explained the WHY well. Now for your next article can we learn how you broke the 21-22 threshold because that’s where I tend to feel I have always been “stuck.” You are a great inspiration!

    1. Hi Allison! Seems like so many of us get stuck at that 7:00 pace/5k. Long story, but the big change I made was increasing mileage from 25-40 mpw in my high school & college programs to 40-50+ which got me under 20:00 after a very long plateau! I also de-emphasized short speed and focused more on tempo runs to get even faster. For example, when I ran 17:14 (a PR at the time), I don’t think I touched 5k pace except in early season mile/3k races.

  6. Ugh, I’m terrible at this. I run at one pace pretty much all of the time (except for workouts/races). This is great advice though! And in fact today’s easy run was like 1:45/mile slower than 5K race pace, which is a good first step : ) Now I just have to slow down my long runs. . .I like the idea of going for time instead of distance!

    1. Time instead of distance usually does take the pressure off. A slower friend who will yell at you is your best bet.

  7. Great article & very timely for me. I switched over to Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running and am using it to train for a marathon. I find I really look forward to my easy days and haven’t had any trouble handling the increased mileage. I haven’t raced with it yet – so right now I’m just believing it will work – but I’m all in on slower running to get faster!

  8. I really need to keep this in mind. Sometimes I’m too hard on myself, and even though it’s supposed to be an easy run, I find myself pushing too much. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I need to go slower! Some thjngs that help me are going without a watch and wearing heavier shoes. I should slow down… Too much nice scenery to look at. I have also found that my workouts have been getting quicker, and I can increase the mileage and not feel as fatigued. Great advice!

    1. It’s a matter of effort … if you feel like 13 – 13:30 is conversational and feels good, then go with it. If you’re pushing yourself to run 13:00-13:30 every single day and it feels hard, or you can’t talk or can’t finish without walking, then you might consider slowing it down. Hope that helps!