One of the most popular questions that I see in running forums on the web is, “How fast should I do my easy runs?”
Believe it or not, it’s a tough question.
Some people have complex formulae to set the pace of their easy runs, such as 70% of vVO2max, or 83% of 5 km race pace or 75% of maximum heart rate. Personally, (no offence intended) I think this is a sign of a runner who is over analyzing their training.
Easy runs are meant to be just that, easy. Meaning that you just go out for a run and let your legs go at the pace they want to run. No straining, no undue effort, and, ideally, no looking at your watch to see if you’re running your “usual” pace. No pushing the pace, just a little, to beat your time from yesterday’s run to prove that you’re getting in better shape. Just easy.
The reason I say this, and the reason I argue against setting a specific pace for your easy runs is that you’re going to feel very different from one day to the next and a pace that may be easy for you one day may be much too hard, or much too easy the following day.
Let’s say you go to the track today and put in a challenging interval workout. If you plan on an easy run tomorrow, you’ll be tired from your interval workout and will probably run slower for a given effort than you would if you’d taken the previous day off instead.
Or suppose you used to run 50 miles per week, but lately you’ve only been managing about 30. Assuming you’re still in roughly the same shape, your easy days will likely be a little faster at 30 miles per week since you’ll be more rested.
I like Deiter Hogan’s (coach of Uta Pippig and several other elite marathoners) approach to training. He wants his athletes to learn to listen to their bodies and be aware of when it’s time to push and when it’s time to back off. Hogan makes a deliberate effort not to nail down specific paces for his athletes, instead using a 1,2,3 system. 1 is easy, 2 is moderate and 3 is hard. It’s based on the mental effort required to maintain a given pace.
For example speed 1 means very easy, relaxed running that doesn’t require any special effort or concentration to maintain the pace. Speed 2 is more challenging, requiring a bit of concentration to maintain the pace but not a super hard effort. Speed 3 is a hard effort that takes a lot of concentration and focus to maintain the pace. The advantage of this approach is that it encourages athletes to tune in to their body and run by effort rather than pace.
One final point that I would like to make is that it’s better to err on the side of caution on your easy runs. Running too slow may give you a very slightly lower stimulus for improvement, but running too fast can lead to overtraining, injury and burnout. Take it easy on your easy days, so that you feel fresh and rested and ready to give a solid effort on the days when you have a hard workout scheduled.