I've been running for six years now, and I've done races from a 5K to a marathon several times over. I am an RRCA-certified running coach. I have read countless books on different training methods. I've studied websites, and have tested out training methods on myself. I feel pretty comfortable saying that I'm "experienced", and I feel very confident when I talk about running.
However, there is one key part of training (in nearly every method out there) that I was ALWAYS doing wrong. It wasn't because I didn't know how I was supposed to do it, it was just that it felt counterintuitive, and I felt silly when I did it correctly.
I'm talking about "easy runs".
Easy runs make up the majority of most major training plans available. They're called easy runs because they are meant to be run at an easy pace--a pace that requires little effort, sometimes called a "conversational pace" because you should be able to hold a conversation while you run. It's very simple! You don't worry about trying to hit certain times or paces during these runs--you just run "easy".
However, the majority of recreational (even competitive recreational) runners do their easy runs too fast. Some may feel ridiculous going at a slow pace, some may be impatient and want to get it over with quickly, some may like to compete (even with themselves) to improve at each training run. For a lot of us, running hard feels like we've really accomplished something--the sweat, sore muscles, heavy breathing--it feels good. Easy running doesn't FEEL like you're doing anything worthwhile (but I hope to help you realize that the easy runs actually are doing something very productive). There are numerous reasons that runners may run their easy runs too fast, but the point is, we need to do the easy runs how they are meant to be run: easy.
I always ignored this bit of training info for myself. When writing training plans for other people, I was sure to include the slower pace suggestions for easy runs; but when doing my own training, I convinced myself that what I was doing was "easy", when, in fact, it was more "moderate" in effort. I just felt embarrassed by the slow pace required to keep my effort easy. Running slowly is very difficult in a mental aspect--we tend to feel silly about it.
However, easy runs are the bread and butter of a training plan! After spending most of 2015 with a stress fracture, I finally decided to change the way I was training. The first thing I did was to run my easy runs at a truly easy pace, using a heart rate monitor to ensure that I didn't convince myself that a moderate run was easy.
This was a typical self-proclaimed "easy run" for me (in reality, it was a moderate run):
|October 2015 (9:32 pace; HR 165)|
Using a heart rate monitor is the best way to ensure you're running easy enough, especially in the beginning. You may be surprised at just how much slower you need to run in order to keep your heart rate in the "easy" zone. When I was doing what I called easy runs before changing up my training, my "easy" pace was about 9:30. Once I started using a heart rate monitor, I realized that was definitely a moderate effort run, and to keep my heart rate where it needed to be, my pace had to be about 11:30!
Here is one of my first TRULY easy runs, keeping my heart rate at less than 146:
|December 2015 (11:36 pace; HR 143)|
I made the decision to keep my easy runs at a low heart rate (I used Dr. Phil Maffetone's 180 formula), no matter how slow I was. And you know what? I really started to ENJOY my runs! Before, I was always dreading having to go for a run. It was a chore to me, and I never looked forward to it--particularly my long runs. Once I started the low heart rate training, I actually really enjoyed the running itself. I dare say that I even started to look forward to my runs, which I never did before.
I still did some speed work, however. I now follow the 80/20 ratio of easy running to hard/moderate running... basically, 80% or more of the time spent running each week should be at an easy effort; and 20% or less should be spent at a moderate to high effort. Personally, I've been running five days a week, with two of those days being spent doing a modest amount of speed work. The other days? I kept my heart rate under 146 bpm, no matter how slow my pace had to be to keep it there.
I got so much faster as a runner, and pretty quickly, too! My 10K pace had slowed to about 11:00/mile in 2015, due to some extra weight and poor training. I set a goal to run a 10K at a 7:55 pace in the spring of 2016, and that became the focus of my training. That's over a three-minute-per-mile improvement, which is a very LOFTY goal--but I did it (well, nearly--I'll find out for sure on Sunday! Regardless, I've done five miles at a 7:50 pace, so I feel confident). It only took me about four months of solid, good-quality training.
I really feel that the easy runs have played an enormous part in my success. I also feel that the easy runs have helped me to drop to my lowest weight ever. Once I switched up my training, the weight came off pretty easily, and I had no idea why--the only thing I was doing differently was running very slowly on my easy runs.
I could get very technical and scientific about WHY running at an easy pace is so important (it involves a lot of talk of cells, mitochondria, capillaries, slow twitch muscle development, and things like that)--but that kind of chat usually goes in one ear and out the other of the typical runner. Here it is, without all the anatomical info:
Throughout training, your body is constantly making adaptations in order to get fitter. The ideal scenario is that you can run fast while using minimal effort--but it takes a lot of training and adapting to get there. For someone who is just starting out, just running a mile takes an enormous effort and your body has to work very hard. As you continue to train, your body adapts by doing all the scientific stuff in order to make it easier. Your body doesn't WANT that run to feel hard, so it changes what it can to make it easier for you the next time.
There are different ways that your body does this, and it requires different training efforts on your part during your training in order to make all of the necessary adaptations. When you run at an easy effort, your body is making very specific changes that are NECESSARY to getting your body in ideal shape; when you run at a hard pace, it is making different changes, which are also necessary. There are very good, necessary reasons to run at several different effort levels in order to get your body to adapt. That means you need to run at an easy effort sometimes, a moderate effort sometimes, and a hard effort sometimes in order to get all of those anatomical changes to happen.
It's like baking cookies--there are necessary ingredients that must go into them in order for the cookies to turn out well. If you skip one or two ingredients, you may still get something that resembles a cookie--but it's not going to be the perfect, ideal cookie. It may taste bad, it may have a poor texture, or it just may not resemble a cookie at all.
Doing all of your running at a moderate or hard effort is like leaving out half the ingredients in your recipe! You will still get some changes and adaptations, but it will be far from ideal. When you have all of the necessary ingredients (or training runs), you will have an amazing batch of cookies (or turn into a master running machine!).
Some of the adaptations in your body can't occur when doing ALL of your running at a hard effort, so you won't get any better. In fact, MOST of the adapting comes from easy running, which is why it's important to do the majority of your runs at an easy effort. The easy running is like the whole base of a good cookie (flour, sugar, butter, etc)--and the moderate or hard running is the extra mix-ins, like chocolate chips or walnuts, to make it even yummier.
In running, training begins (or should begin) with "building a base". Basically, that is a LOT of running at an easy effort--very little or no speed work. For a beginner, this could take six months to a year; for a seasoned runner, a few weeks will do. It just depends on the person. But during the base building period, the runs should be done at an easy effort in order to maximize your aerobic conditioning. Once you build that base, you can start sprinkling in some speed work. The speed work will go much more smoothly when you have a good aerobic base to start with.
I realize this post is very long, and it really is just a long-winded piece of advice: "Make your easy runs EASY!", but I hope that I've convinced you to actually do it. I read all about it over the years, and thought, "Yeah, yeah, I know--easy runs should be easy." I convinced myself that what I was doing WAS actually easy, but after utilizing the heart rate monitor, I realized that I was just kidding myself.
One thing worth mentioning is that running truly easy on your easy runs makes your performance during hard runs much better. One of the first things I noticed when I switched up my training was that I had more energy to devote to my hard runs, and I was able to put in a really great effort; before, I was doing my easy runs too fast and my hard runs too slow.
In conclusion, I want to share what MY experience has been with easy runs. These are just some of the changes I've noticed:
- I enjoy my training much, much more than I did before.
- I have more energy during ALL of my runs--easy and speed work.
- I'm able to give a much better effort during my hard runs.
- My hard pace has improved dramatically--I PR'ed my 5K after just a month and a half of making the switch to easy running.
- My weight and body fat continued to decrease, even when I wasn't trying to lose more.
- I have stayed injury-free, even with the very hard effort I give during speed work.
- Because I am doing much less speed work, I actually look forward to doing it. It feels good to run hard once in a while.
- I've learned that my body doesn't HAVE to run fast all the time in order to maintain my fitness. Even just running hard once a week will keep me in good shape. The easy runs are doing their job, even if it doesn't feel like it.
|March 2016 (10:06 pace; HR 142)|