Take a look at any sensible training plan for distance running (i.e. 5k and further) and you'll see a lot of 'easy' runs. While they may not seem to be as exciting or have as much purpose as speed work, hill reps or tempo runs, they are just as important, if not more so. But why is what some people call 'junk miles' so critical?
To get to the bottom of this, let's take a look at the role that easy runs play in your training schedule. Here are five things they do.
Build base mileage
Obvious, right? But this is important because without a foundation, without those miles in your legs, you can't do the harder sessions.
Increase muscle tendon strength and bone density gradually
One of the reasons we're advised to do exercise in general - and particularly weight-bearing exercise such as running - is that it works and builds muscle and improves bone density. By running easy, we do these things gradually. Running hard all the time puts a huge strain on the body and increases the chance of injury.
Develop slow twitch muscle fibres
Slow twitch muscle fibres are the ones we recruit when running slowly. Everyone has fast and slow but genetically we are all slightly different. Sprinters will have more fast twitch muscle fibres, for example. By running slowly we use and generate more of the slow twitch fibres and while there is a finite amount we can acquire, the more we get the better it is for continuous use over long periods.
Improve your ability to use fat as an energy source
The faster you run, the more you require carbohydrates as an energy source. But if you train by running easy, you essentially teach your body to use fat as an energy source, meaning you run out of carbohydrate fuel later and delay 'hitting the wall' in your long runs.
Provide active recovery
I'm a huge fan of rest days but there's a place for active recovery too. Some use alternatives such as cycling as it has a similar effect without the impact of running, but easy jogs can help to clear waste products and prevent stiffness after a hard session. Do two or more tough workouts in a row and you're in danger of overtraining and risking injury.
How easy is easy?
The general consensus is that your easy run should be 1-2 minutes slower than your target marathon pace (MP). For many, this will feel like a slow shuffle. I would guess that most people have a default pace they slip into and that it's a fair bit quicker than even a minute slower than MP. Personally, 8.30 minute miles feels fairly comfortable, but as my MP is 8.00m/m, I should really be running at 9.00m/m, and probably even slower. In reality, I don't do this very often so that's something I'm addressing in this 16-week training block.
Partly because I know I'm guilty of running my easy runs too fast, and partly because it's the hottest week of the year and it's just good sense, I've been making doubly sure to slow down. It's easy to monitor your pace if you have a GPS watch but if you don't, employ the rate of perceived effort approach, where 0 is sitting on your sofa and 10 is a full sprint. Easy runs should be 3-4 on this scale - running but very little effort. For harder sessions, it's beneficial to run with people slightly faster than you. But for easy runs, it's actually better to run with someone slower. Or if you can't guarantee you'll be able to do this, run by yourself on your easy days. Don't get dragged into someone else's workout.
Beware of running for kudos
There’s no doubt that Strava is useful for recording your workouts, enabling analysis and providing a community in which like-minded people can comment and encourage you. However, there is a risk that you get influenced by a) what others are doing or b) what you think others think of you. Perhaps you don't include the warm-up section of your workout, or skimp on it altogether so that your average pace doesn't suffer. Or, maybe you just run the whole thing quicker so that you appear speedy to your online friends. While this may give you instant 'Kudos', is it worth it in the longer term? Think about it. What are you gaining by impressing your followers? Unless it translates into race results you're proud of, what is the point of all those thumbs up?
Thought for the week
Take your easy runs seriously. Don't skip them. Understand that they play a crucial role and aren't junk miles. Use them as an opportunity to run with someone slower than you, or to focus on your running form. If you can't get your running form right when you're running slowly and are fresh, you sure as hell won't when you're tired and trying to run fast. Enjoy the calm before the hard session storm.
Do you run your easy runs easy enough? Be honest now!