Easy Running: Can Slowing Down Help You Speed Up?

Two runners run down a shaded trail.

Easy runs may seem counterintuitive to some runners. After all, running is about pushing your body past its limits. How can you get faster by slowing down?

To get faster, you have to run faster. If you’re new to the sport you can make significant improvements by simply trying to run fast every time you hit the pavement. But once you reach a certain level, these improvements diminish. To further increase your speed, you need to allow your body time to recover between hard efforts.

While running faster is necessary for improving speed, rest and recovery are also crucial to the equation. Stress plus rest equals growth, and running at a slower pace is a great way to allow your body to recover from intense workouts while still working on your aerobic development.

The Benefits of Easy Running

Two runners run down a residential street.

Easy runs, also known as recovery runs, help your body to develop aerobically, allowing you to make sustainable progress over the long term. David Roche, an experienced run coach and elite trail runner, explains how building an aerobic base is key to endurance performance.

“Aerobic development is a longer-term adaptation,” he says, “leading to year-over-year growth when combined with speed work to make the muscular outputs more efficient.”

The major benefits of easy running comes from the cellular changes that can occur. Because your body isn’t under as much stress as it is while running hard, you have the chance to develop physiologically.

“Components of aerobic development include angiogenesis, which is the increase of capillaries around working muscles, increased cardiac output, and higher volumes of red blood cells and plasma. Roche says that improving type-I muscle fiber recruitment, which are the key slow twitch fibers for endurance, also occurs.

Running hard all the time can place too much stress on your body, limiting the aerobic adaptations that can occur. This can also lead to fatigue, injury and overtraining.

Read more about overtraining here.

Roche explains the “Inverted-U of Easy Paces,” describing how easy run paces get faster as you develop. “Learning to run faster matters, and the upper-end aerobic gains can be magical for overall growth. But after an athlete gains experience, they'll find that those initial upper-end gains are running out, and if they keep pushing, they'll usually burn out or go through injury cycles,” he says.

Instead, Roche recommends that easy paces should actually get slower as you begin racing faster. “Those lower-level gains can accrue much longer term, particularly given how they allow for volume increases.” In other words, the higher your weekly mileage, the slower your easy runs should be.

Just because your race times are getting faster doesn’t mean your easy runs should be. By giving your body the proper time to recover, you can add more mileage and intensity to your training schedule.

How to Find Your Easy Pace

Three runners run towards the camera.

If you're used to constantly pushing yourself, running at an easy pace can be difficult. It can be tough to hold back and run at a relaxed effort. So how exactly can you calculate your easy pace? Run4PRs head coach Ben Jacobs gave us some pointers.

Jacobs recommends running at a pace that’s two to three minutes slower than your 5K race pace. “The best way to determine your easy pace is to use a recent race time. If you ran a 25 minute 5K recently, that’s an 8:00 pace. So most likely that would mean your easy pace is 10 to 11 minutes most days,” he explains.

He warns runners to stay away from the “gray zone”, which is a pace that’s hard enough to delay your recovery but not hard enough to help you improve. “For a 25-minute 5K runner, an 8:30 pace would be in the gray zone. It isn’t beneficial and you aren’t recovering,” Jacobs explains.

If you’re new to easy runs, holding yourself accountable to a certain pace can be more helpful than running based on feel. But if you're more experienced with easy running, it can be better to focus on effort.

It’s important to note that easy paces can fluctuate from day to day. Factors such as weather, elevation and the previous day’s workout can all play a role in determining your easy pace.

“One great way to think about true easy pace is using the conversation test. If your breathing is at a rate that allows you to speak in full sentences, then you are running easy. If you are breathing so hard that you can’t, then you may be running too hard,” Jacobs explains.

If you’re looking for a scientific way to determine your easy pace, Roche recommends using a chest strap heart rate monitor.

“Start with a 10-15 minute warm-up and then run for 30 minutes at a hard effort. Your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes of that hard effort is your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate. A good cap for easy runs is 85 to 90 percent of that number. But even if you use a heart rate monitor, keep giving yourself the space and grace for great days and bad days,” he explains.

The most important factor to consider when determining your easy pace is how your body feels.

“Easy describes physiological processes, but those processes are summarized in how the brain tells you that you are feeling. If easy runs leave you tired, or sore, then slow them down until they don't,” Roche says.

Avoid getting caught up in comparisons

A group of runners look at a phone while sitting on a bench.

In the age of social media, it’s important to avoid comparing yourself to other runners. Each runner is different, and we tend to only post the best workouts and runs online. Don’t be embarrassed to post your easy runs online––they’re just one part of the equation when it comes to endurance training.

“I think seeing people post their super-fast workouts can be really misleading. You don't always know what their background or training looks like, and you don't know what that runs means in the context of their training,” Jacobs says.

“We don't want to gauge training based on easy runs. It’s better to judge things based on how you’re feeling and performing in races. Too often people get caught up with thinking they need to post an impressive workout to Strava or Instagram to look good.”

Instead, take pride in your easy runs. They’re your secret weapon to getting faster.

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