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Run Easy to Get Faster

Almost all runners tend to run their easy runs too quickly, at too great an effort, and with too much intensity. If you pay attention to going more slowly –– "easing up" –– on your easy days, you might just find yourself running faster on your harder days.

Every type of run within a typical training program serves a specific purpose to make a more complete runner, whether it be long, slow distance, variable-speed fartleks, intense hill grinds, or speedy interval work. Easy runs also serve an important purpose –– recovery and adaptation.

How do easy days work? First, when running easy, you are primarily engaging slow-twitch muscle fibers, which have a higher density of mitochondria, higher levels of aerobic enzymes, and greater capillary density than fast-twitch fibers. Running easy is the time that your body goes into active recovery mode. During recovery, your body increases mitochondria and capillaries; as you build a denser network of capillaries, you help speed blood flow to muscles for the oxygen boost they’ll need when you put the hammer down. Simply put, without easy days, your body can’t prepare itself to do faster intense running.

Hey, it’s science time!

Simplified Diagram of a Mitochondria

However, our ambitions to do too much too soon too fast often trip us up. It is very common to run our “easy day” with mindless rapidity –– the same speed but maybe a little less distance. By making a conscious effort to slow your pace of recovery days, you will avoid the very common problem of doing all of your runs at around the same intensity level, which usually means you are not doing your hard workouts hard enough because you haven’t allowed yourself to recover during your easy days.

A recent study discovered that more successful runners actually train at a training distribution of 80 percent easy effort, 10 percent moderate, and 10 percent high. Kenyan runners, for instance, are notorious for doing their easy runs at a very slow pace. When it comes to the faster stuff, however, they don’t take it easy. Even if you don’t have any desire to be a professional runner, it does seem clear that the 80/10/10 ratio is optimal for most runners.

Most runners won’t achieve this ratio and instead find themselves at a 45/45/10 distribution. This probably happens because we run a bit less (OK, a lot less) than elites and therefore sometimes feel that we need to run harder to make the miles that we accomplish “count.” It turns out that this way of thinking about running intensity is counter productive. By running at essentially a constant mid-level effort for all of your runs, you never escape the burden of fatigue that will allow for training at a more intense effort. By essentially avoiding easy efforts, you will never allow your body to truly recover and you will never have the energy to do the high intensity workouts that will help you meet your running goals.

Remember to take it easy. Well, maybe not this easy…

Now that we’ve established that you need easy recovery runs, you’re probably wondering –– How “easy” is easy? One simple way of determining whether you are running at a relaxed recovery pace is the tried and true “talk test.” Run at a pace that is comfortable enough to maintain a conversation with a training partner. If you are having trouble talking and are gasping for breath, you are taking your easy run too quickly.

Some coaches recommend adding two minutes to your 10K race pace. Strict adherence to pacing guidelines, however, can lead you to exert too much effort if you are in the midst of some particularly hard training. If you did a hard interval workout the day before, merely adding two minutes to your 10K race pace might prove to be too stressful. Remember that easy runs are more about effort than pace. If it is feeling hard, slow down.

One sure fire way to keep your easy days under control is to use a heart rate monitor. For your easy pace, you should aim for 65-70 percent of your maximum heart rate. You don’t even need to take a treadmill stress test to establish your maximum. You’ll merely need a 400-meter track and a heart-rate monitor. Sounds like fun… (Alex Hutchinson, “Find Your True Max Heart Rate,” Runner’s World, January 7, 2008).

The Garmin 245 has an optical heart-rate monitor –– no more chest straps!

The upshot: embrace the paradox. Go a little slower to get a lot faster.

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