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You Cannot Run Too Slow On Your Easy Days

SIbbetson

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Note: I copied and pasted this from my blog, and some of the links do not work but I am too lazy to check and change them all, so if you can't get to linked material from this post, refer to the original post here.

I've seen so many benefits from slowing down my easy runs that I want to tell the world so every runner can get these benefits.  Learn from my mistakes, everyone!  In the future I'll post more details about my personal experience, but in short, when I slowed down my easy runs I felt much stronger, had markedly fewer injuries/niggles, had reduced incidences of illness, experienced performance improvements (PRs in every distance from 5k to marathon at age 38-39), and began enjoying running even more, which I didn't even think was possible!  I think why many runners don't do it is because running faster can produce short-term gains, and we see those gains and think that it works - I have been guilty of thinking exactly that!  Plus it is fun to run fast and to say a certain "impressive" pace is easy. 

In this post I've linked and summarized some great articles on the topic that have been written by people who are more knowledgeable and faster than me. I mean, if Sally Kipyego runs her recovery runs at 8:30 pace or slower, why are 3:00 marathoners running theirs at 7:00 pace? 

The Two Simple Reasons Your Easy Days are Ruining Your Training
My favorite piece from this article is: "You cannot run too slowly on a recovery day, only too fast. Make sure you understand that. It is a simple concept that is notoriously hard to grasp."

The author notes, "In high school, I would often race my easy days around 6:45 mile pace and run my workout days around 6:30 pace. Ten years later, as a professional runner, I run many of my hard workouts at 5-minute mile pace or faster and my easy days at 8:30 pace or slower."  I have read in several places that a big difference between amateur and professional runners is that amateurs have a much smaller pace differential between easy pace and workouts, wheres professionals have a huge pace differential.  If you are running tempos at 7:30 pace and easy runs at 8:00 pace, you are either under-performing in workouts or over-reaching on easy days, and I would bet it is the latter!

The author also mentioned that going easy by "feel" is best for most runners, and while I agree with this after a person has learned to run easy, I see that a lot of runners don't know what it's like to actually run easy - they think they are doing it when they are running a moderate pace (I have been one of those people)!  "Easy" and "not hard" are not the same.
I mean, if you can't trust Runners World for training advice, who can you trust? Hah!

Running slow is very common with Kenyan-born runners, and no one can argue what distance running powerhouses they are. The article notes, "Sally Kipyego, an Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters, can hold a sub-5:00 minute pace in the event. Achieving that requires Kipyego to log plenty of hard track sessions and tempo runs. Yet on her non-workout days, she ambles along at 8:30-per-mile pace, sometimes even slower."  Her easy pace is over 3:30 slower than her 10K pace, and clearly it works. Sally recently placed 3rd in the 2020 Olympic Trials.  Side note: It completely blows my mind that a woman can average 4:55 pace for 6.2 miles!

I've read this time and time again, and you will see it as a recurring theme in this summary: “The common denominator among most really successful runners, people running at a high level, is a really wide chasm between training-run pace and where they work out....Brenda Martinez, who has PRs of 1:57.91 for 800m and 4:00.94 for 1500m, is a perfect example of this. Under the guidance of coach Joe Vigil, she’ll run 8 x 1,000m repeats at 2:55 [that is 4:41/mile pace!], but on her easy days, she’ll run a 9-minute pace."

The article also advises "runners to use 10K race pace plus 2 minutes for easy-day pace, wear heart rate monitors (and aim for 65 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate), or take occasional treadmill runs to monitor pace."  While I am not at all a fan of treadmill running, it's clear there are benefits to setting it at a certain pace, whether easy or on a workout day, and letting it keep you there!  This article presents the other side of the coin too (faster easy days and when they might be appropriate).

How Fast Should Your Easy Runs Be?
This one provides great scientific explanations, and if you're interested in the science behind easy running make sure to read the whole article. Just like heart rate doesn't lie, science does not lie! It also breaks down a lot of common questions (e.g., "But if I feel good can I run faster?", "Don't I get more benefit from running faster?", "How slow is too slow?", etc.).

I have personally found that I will run a faster marathon off of almost all easy running than off of frequent workouts at a slightly lower mileage volume.  This is probably because,  "...nothing will consistently help you improve continuously like developing the aerobic system."

For the numerically minded (and really, what runner isn't), "Your optimal easy run pace for aerobic development is between 55 and 75% of your 5k pace, with the average pace being about 65 %....  Running faster than 75% of your 5k pace on your long run doesn’t provide a lot of additional physiological benefit....In fact, the research indicates that it would be just as advantageous to run slower as it would be to run faster...Even though 50-55 % of 5k pace will seem too easy, the research clearly demonstrates that it still provides near optimal physiological aerobic adaptation."
 
"Many runners have a distorted view of what 'easy' means".  This post summaries a couple of scientific studies and concludes that you cannot run too slow on your easy days and that easy pace should vary from day to day!  I think that's another sign of "not real" easy pace (or at least it was for me):  always running the same pace on easy runs, or stating ahead of time what your easy pace is going to be.
 
The post mentions the 2:00+ current 5k pace guideline for easy runs, which I've seen noted in numerous paces and based on my personal experience is pretty solid. 
 
Why Running Slow Can Eventually Help You Run Faster
I acknowledge that the slow easy runs method may not be best for short-term success.  If you are running one training block, you might be better off running faster every day.  But if that describes you, I doubt you're inventing the time to read this post, plus most runners I know are in it for the long-haul!
 
If the previous information isn't convincing you that this method works, perhaps this expert will scare you, "So if all your runs are too fast, according to Bartholic, you’re not developing the power system that you need for 97 percent of a race...Your maximum aerobic benefit is going to be running slowly....When you’re running slowly, and your injury risk is lower, you can run more often, more miles, and build up slowly,”

In the past I've fallen victim to thinking that I had to run a lot of workouts to get faster, but I had a similar experience to this: “You think you have to do a lot of speed work to get faster,” he said, “but after doing most of my runs at a slow pace my marathon finish time was much faster.”  

This article mentions how to calculate an appropriate easy pace based on heart rate, and also mentions the "talk test". I don't know how the talk test goes for others, but I can converse when running marathon pace but that is NOT an easy pace for me.
 
It's Okay To Run Slow, Really
If your race performance has plateaued or you've dealt with reoccurring injuries, slowing down your easy runs might be just what you need to break through.  It seems very counter-intuitive; we want to go pound workouts and pick up the pace every day to get faster, but "While some runners have success with faster paces on easy days (particularly lower volume runners), eventually even those runners usually see diminishing returns as aerobic adaptations from moderate running get tapped out." 

"Polarization essentially means that training is usually easy or hard, rather than a grinding-it-out moderate all the time. Lots of “grey-area” moderate running can increase injury risk and lead to stagnation due to the absence of adequate recovery and faster stimuli." When I was training for a goal pace of 6:15 for the Indy Monumental Marathon, I noticed that I rarely ran between 6:15-7:45 pace - the "gray area" for me (if I was hitting 7:15-7:30 at the end of an easy run it was only because someone I was running with was speeding up).  My workouts were at 5:30-6:15 pace, and my easy runs were 7:45-8:30 pace.  It wouldn't have hurt me to run easy runs slower than that - many runners who are much faster than me do.
 
How Running Slow Makes You Faster
Seriously, run slow to run fast.

"...as 2018 Ironman World Championships runner-up Bart Aernouts said... “a slow run can only be too fast, not too slow” [notice a reoccurring theme here?].  Bart’s really easy runs are paced between 6:54/mile and 8:03/mile. That’s not super slow, but some of you are likely running most of your runs at a similar pace – and you’re likely not one of only two men to finish the iconic Kona Ironman course in under eight hours, running a 2:45:41 marathon, averaging 6:19/mile after a 2.4-mile swim, and a 112-mile ride in the Hawaiian heat. If that’s the case, it’s time to slow it down."  I think that pretty much speaks for itself - a 2:45 marathon after swimming and biking for 5+ hours in terribly hot conditions in insane!

But what pace should we run?  "For non-elite athletes, coach Luke Humphrey...recommends 1:30–2:30 minutes per mile slower than goal race pace."  I'm not sure what race distance he is referring to, but less than 90 seconds per mile slower than any race pace is too fast to really be easy; well, unless you are one of those amazing people running 50 to 100 milers!

The article also mentions the importance of the other pieces of training programs, such as fast intervals.  While this post is not about them, workouts are obviously essential to race success and should be included in a training schedule in addition to the awesome easy runs we are focused on here.
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This x 1000: "But just because you can push harder than a true easy pace doesn't mean you always should."  Just because you can run faster on easy days doesn't mean it's a smart idea!

This article also discusses the difference between marathoners running sub-3:00 vs. 4-6 hours, which I thought was a helpful distinction.  The faster you're racing, the more differential you should have between easy pace and marathon pace. A 2:59 marathoner needs to slow the pace down 1:30 or so per mile, while someone running a 4:30 marathon may only need to slow down by 0:45-1:15.

This is important for marathoners: "Part of doing those slower runs is that it teaches our bodies to burn fat, which is really important in a marathon because our carbohydrate stores only last so long," she says. "So the more efficient we are burning fat, the more we can push off hitting the wall."  This is also a good point I hadn't thought about until now, but when I was running easy runs too fast I was more apt to hit the wall.

What Pace Should My Easy Runs Be?
I personally experienced this: "More often than not, when a runner’s race times plateau it’s a sign that there’s not enough variety in the training program, they’re not recovering well from the work they’re doing day after day, or some combination of the two."

We runners always want a number!  "I recommend easy/recovery runs to be 90 seconds to 2 minutes per mile slower than your marathon pace."
 
The author discusses the easy runs of 2:13-2:14 marathoners: "with a majority of those runs in the 7:30 per mile pace range—nearly two-and-a-half minutes per mile slower than the paces they could race a marathon!"  If 2:13-2:14 marathoners are running easy runs at 7:30, I certainly don't need to be!

Using the 80/20 Rule to Balance Triathlon Training Intensity
While this article is clearly about triathlon and not running, the point about the "moderate intensity rut" is spot on. "Recreational triathletes spend a much smaller percentage of their training time at low intensity and a much larger percentage at moderate intensity" (compared to elites and professionals who perform much better).  Another case of running slower to perform better!

You Can't Run Too Slow on Your Long Runs!
I mean, the title says it all. He recommends marathon pace + 2:00.

In some ways it is harder to run slower for long runs, because it means significantly more time on feet!  This article isn't focused on advanced marathon runners, but I think it's important to note that if you are trying to work your marathon time down, workout long runs become very important, especially later in the training cycle.
 
I found this long article on base training after I wrote this original post, and it doesn't exactly fit in this post, but I wanted to add it to show the importance of aerobic development.  The author also notes that you'd be surprised at how well you can race off of lots of easy mileage plus some strides, and I have experienced that.  Now is the perfect time to train like that, since it's an investment in long-term development and we are unsure when races will happen again! 
 
Here are a few examples from some really fast people:
Nick, a 15:45 5k and 32:29 10k runner ran these PRs at age 37, bettering his college bests, after slowing down his easy runs to an average of 7:45.  Read his details here.
 
Shawanna calls it sexy pace! She is a 2:45 marathoner who runs a lot at 8:00-9:30 pace.  You can see one of such runs here, but her Instagram account and Strava are full of them (she is also the best ambassador for running positivity that I know - you can't help but smile and love running when you see anything she posts).
 
This post by Sam says it all - she ran 3 blazing fast mile time trials (in Alabama in June!), and her average pace for all of her running was 8:34.  Aside from her impressive 5:02 mile, she has also run a 17:20 5k and a 2:49 marathon with easy running from 8:00-9:00+.
 
Molly Seidel, the runner up in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, posts all of her runs on her Strava, and her easy runs are usually 7:30-8:00 (relative to her 5:30 marathon pace!).
 
Keira D'Amato has been making headlines during quarantine, including time trialing a 15:04 5k and 4:33 mile Her Strava shows many runs between 8:00-9:00 pace.
 
Hiruni Wijayaratne is a 2:34 marathoner hoping to represent Sri Lanka in the next Olympics, and at the end of this podcast she notes that her easy days will be 9:00 pace, maybe 8:40.
 
Now is the perfect time to experiment in training, with no races for the foreseeable future.  If you try slowing down easy runs and don't like it, then you can always speed them back up.  In the words of Dr. Seuss, "You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may."
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I was doing calculations in my head about my paces and was relieved when I saw the bit about easy pace being relative to your race pace. Mine is a fair bit slower than it used to be, so I'm glad I don't have to slow my slow runs so much. Much slower and I'll be walking.

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here's another data point - in university I never ran slow, because I was the slowest guy on the team.. had to go hard while everyone else was running easy.. my long runs on my own were also hard, since I figured I needed the extra work..

Left that, went into the army where they wouldn't let me run enough (ha) and got even slower.
Out of the army, by this time had run six marathons between 3:10 and 3:06 and thought that was it for me, maybe could get down under 3:05 one day..

started training with a bunch of ultramarathon guys who did long runs of 3-6 hours at easy jog pace. This seemed very odd but it was sort of nice just to lope along chatting, gas station breaks to get a Coke and candy bar. Four months into this ran a hilly hard 35 mile race, hit the marathon mark in 2:45 and held pace to the finish in 3:48..

now it's true I had to add in some 10k-specific training to get near 2:40 but always kept the easy long run..

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I agree with all of this 100% and this is what I do in my running.

It's also so difficult no to say something when you see people calling a run an easy run when you know that for them they are going way too fast. 

I do my easy runs about 2 minutes slower than my 10k pace and I limit my HR to 140. Most of these runs end up with an average HR of about 135-138.

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On 7/23/2020 at 12:42 PM, MichaelV said:

I agree with all of this 100% and this is what I do in my running.

It's also so difficult no to say something when you see people calling a run an easy run when you know that for them they are going way too fast. 

I do my easy runs about 2 minutes slower than my 10k pace and I limit my HR to 140. Most of these runs end up with an average HR of about 135-138.

Michael, that's about exactly what I do HR and pace-wise!  I cap my HR at 132 for doubles also.  I also agree about it being hard not to say something about people's "impressive easy paces".  An acquaintance of mine posted a "nice and easy run" where her heart race averaged in the 160s and peaked at 175, and I just wanted to say, oh honey, that's a tempo!  I have definitely made many, many mistakes with running over the years, but I will not make the mistake of running easy days too fast again.

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