Until a couple of years ago when I started to take my training more seriously, I ran without a watch. I had no data. No idea of my pace or distance. But I listened to my body. As a result, I ran strictly based on feel because the purpose behind the runs was simple:
They were meant to make me feel good.
That stopped the day I got a Garmin and joined Strava. Suddenly, I had a way track my progress. Each run I was tempted to go faster and farther than the one before. Every run became a competition with myself, an ill-fated opportunity to prove something.
Then, guess what?
Every run started to feel hard. And, as my mileage increased, my pace didn’t decrease, and I eventually tore my hamstring.
The drawbacks of running too fast
The truth is, I’m not alone. Many runners run their easy runs too fast. Many runners think their easy pace is easy when it’s actually moderately hard. As coaches for The Mother Runners, Laura Norris and I see this with a bulk of our athletes.
Why? Because we runners are naturally prone to think if it’s not hard, then it’s not accomplishing anything. In short, we often make life harder than it has to be—and as mother runners, our lives are difficult enough!
Add in copious amounts of data and a platform to post our runs for others to see, and we forget the purpose behind an easy running pace.
But smart runners know that easy runs are their secret weapons in developing their running economy, growing their volume, and preventing injuries. I’m talking about running greats like the famed ultramarathoning legend and author Dean Karnazes and well-known author and running coach Jason Karp, along with other experienced trainers and coaches, who shared with me the benefits of easy running!
Need help buying into the benefits? Look no further!
Are easy runs good for running?
Yes. There are many benefits of running easy—both mental and physical.
7 benefits of easy running
According to Karnazes, author of the national bestseller Ultramarathon Man and a father runner, easy runs promote angiogenesis (development of new blood vessels) which improves blood flow.
This means your body becomes more efficient at supplying oxygen to your working muscles allowing you to run faster and farther.
Increases fat burning as fuel.
Your body also becomes more energy-efficient because while working in the aerobic zone it uses your body’s unlimited fat stores (yes, all of us have unlimited fat stores) as fuel rather than limited glycogen stores, says Brett Durney, personal trainer and co-founder of the Fitness Lab.
This also allows you to run faster and longer.
Related: Train Your Gut to Avoid Bonking
Durney adds that running easy in your low heart rate zone aids in recovery. “If you have had a hard interval training OR resistance training the day before, going for an easy run can help lymphatic drainage and can also increase blood flow and therefore recovery processes within the body.”
When you rob your body of recovery, it will eventually break down, as mine did with my hamstring injury.
“By running faster on easy days, you add unnecessary stress to your legs without any extra benefit and it will prevent you from adequately recovering in time for your harder days,” explains Karp, exercise physiologist, run coach, and author of 12 books, including Running a Marathon for Dummies.
Increases training volume.
By ensuring recovery through easy running, you allow your body to build itself back up while bolstering your capillary system and thus adding more volume.
“This enables you to increase your overall training volume. Training is about optimization—obtaining the most benefit with the least amount of stress,” says Karp. “The more miles you’re able to run without stressing your body, the more efficient (and fast) it will become.”
Increases training intensity.
When you run easy on easy running days, you can run harder on your hard days—thereby optimizing your training, adds Karp. “Easy running enables you to get more out of your harder days because you’ll have less residual fatigue.”
Last but not least, Karnazes adds that easy running can just be plain old fun. “Easy runs tend to be more enjoyable. It’s easier to look forward to an easy run than a tough run, so it helps sustain motivation.”
Does easy running help you run faster?
Yes—for all the reasons above.
But if you doubt me, Karnazes, who has run 350 miles without rest and 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, himself says he’s experimenting with lengthening the duration of his easy runs while shortening the duration of his hard runs (while running harder).
The result? “I’ve been able to lower my 10K personal best by almost a minute.”
Karp, who coaches elite runners, says he’s seen countless examples of runners having breakthroughs when they embrace easy running.
“What runners find is that when the volume gets very high, they have no choice but to slow down, otherwise they crash and burn. I once coached a runner who qualified for the Olympic Trials who had to slow her easy run pace to 10-minute miles when the volume exceeded 80 miles per week,” Karp shares.
What is a good easy run pace?
There are two ways to tell if you are running at an easy running pace.
Rate of perceived effort.
The RPE strategy is simply based on how you feel when you’re running.
As Karnazes explains, “the best measuring device is the talk test. If you can’t hold a conversation, you’re going too fast.” RPE is more emotional and based on how you perceive the exercise difficultly/intensity.
Using a calculator like running coach great Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculator can also estimate your easy running pace based off of recent race results.
Heart rate monitor.
Even the most basic GPS watches offer a heart rate monitor and many, such as Garmin, will tell you what heart rate zone you’re training in.
“HR is much more data-driven whereas RPE is more emotional and based on how you perceive the exercise difficultly/intensity. Heart rate doesn’t lie, though. Heart rate training keeps you more honest — it is a truly objective figure,” says Von Collins, a triathlon coach at Complete Tri and author.
For the most accurate heart rate monitoring, use a chest strap as studies show wrist-based heart monitor can have a margin of error of as much as 13 percent.
How often should you do easy runs?
How often you do your easy runs depends on your training.
Karp explains that the common guideline of 80 percent of runs being easy and 20 percent of runs being hard, also known as polarized training, is geared towards elites who are running high mileage.
“Since many runners run 5-6 days per week and do one tempo run and one interval workout per week, that would come out to be a 60/40 percent intensity distribution for 5 days of running per week and 67/33 percent for 6 days of running per week,” says Karp, who covers polarized training in his upcoming book Running Periodization.
For example, someone may go on a 10-mile run on an easy day, but a hard interval workout may only add up to be 2 miles of quality running plus a warm-up and cool-down.
To keep it simple, runners should ensure they never run two consecutive hard running days. Karnazes subscribes to the hard/easy protocol. “Half your runs should be hard, the other half easy.”
Why do a lot of runners run their easy too fast?
One of the biggest mistakes runners make is that they run their easy runs too fast.
“For many competitive runners, the feel of running at a certain pace, or being able to post a brisk run on Strava or Runkeeper, is all about pride and competition. The fact is that running at a slower pace, or in a Zone 2 heart rate, can feel unnaturally slow,” explains Collins.
When runners run their easy runs too fast, they can fall into a “black hole” of training at the same intensity on every run, explains Karnazes. “This results in a plateau in our fitness. Better to hold back during the easy runs and go absolutely all-out on the other days.”
How can runners recalibrate their easy pace?
For runners who typically run their easy runs too fast, recalibrating their easy pace can be very difficult as it will feel unnaturally slow. I can vouch for this. This spring, I’ve recalibrated my easy runs to be about a minute slower than what I thought my natural pace was. I did this using a heart rate chest strap and viewing my heart rate zones on my watch rather than pace.
It was a struggle to embrace this pace, but I was able to get there by buying into the benefits of running easy. That was key.
As Karnazes explains, to recalibrate your easy you need to “alter your mindset to view an easy run as a way of ultimately getting faster. Force yourself to slow down during easy runs so that you can give it your all during hard runs.”
How long does it take for a runner’s natural easy pace to get faster?
Again, that depends.
Improvements may differ depending on a person’s starting point, prior athletic history, genetic predisposition, and how well they are nourishing their body, says Samantha Clayton, Olympic runner, certified fitness trainer, and vice president of sports performance and fitness at Herbalife Nutrition.
“We all improve at different times and physical adaptation is different for everyone. The typical road map in sports, in general, is that change often occurs around the 8-to-12 week mark for people who are being consistent and managing the cycle of work to rest and recovery.”
Personally, I noticed my natural easy running pace quicken in about four weeks.
5 Tips for Easy Running
Run most of your runs easy.
With the exception of workouts, most (at least half) of your runs should be easy. You should never have two high-intensity days back-to-back.
Do the talk test.
If you can talk easily on your runs without huffing and puffing, it’s likely an easy pace. This is also called running RPE (rate of perceived exertion).
Get a heart rate monitor.
Running by heart rate (especially using chest straps over wrist monitors) is the most accurate way to tell if you’re running in the easy zone which is 60-70 percent of our max heart rate. Most GPS watches like Garmin even tell you if you’re running in the easy zone.
Increase easy runs as you increase mileage.
There is an inverse relationship between hard and easy running. As your training volume grows, your easy running volume will also grow, shrinking the percentage of hard running.
Remember the benefits.
If you’re tempted to run your easy runs too fast, remember the benefits it has on your body, says Collins.
“As well-known running coach Dr. Phil Maffetone has said for years, consistent, slower workouts actually will help you get faster in the long-term because it allows your body to seriously grow its aerobic abilities.”
Remember, mother runners, don’t make life harder than it has to be. Embrace the easy and reap the rewards later on.
We’d love to help you towards your goals and keep you honest with the purpose of every run. Check out The Mother Runners Coaching Services for more information.