Easy runs are the foundation of any sound training program from the 5K to the marathon. This is the training mode where we runners spend 70 – 80% of our training mileage, including the long run. And yet, few of us put much thought into those vital workouts. Often, we end up with near marathon pace and therefore underdeliver on key workouts the other training days.
“Easy runs can support or ruin every other workout in your training week.”
HOW FAST SHOULD EASY RUNS BE?
The purpose of easy runs and long runs is building up general endurance and injury resistance. Without those 2 attributes, no running training with significant volume is possible. Though, easy runs don’t have to be more intense than 60 – 70% of VO2max in order to single out the all-important slow-twitch muscle fibers, enhance their mitochondrial density, and enlarge their glycogen storage capacity.
The best way to control your easy run intensity is a heart rate monitor. Use the ‘Karvonen method’ to determine the appropriate easy run heart rate zone. The formula: ((max HR − resting HR) × %Intensity) + resting HR. For a runner with a maximum heart rate of 190bpm and a resting heart rate of 45bpm it would be ((190 – 45) x 65%) + 45 = 139bpm target heart rate for the easy run.
You will notice that your heart rate drifts over the length of the workout. The reason for that is the accumulation of heat in your body and the recruitment of less economical muscle fibers as your slow-twitch fibers fatigue. That’s ok. Slow down the pace accordingly. However, keep the intensity above 60% of VO2max at all times to stimulate the necessary adaptations needed for top performances.
On the other hand, running easy runs faster than prescribed will not result in a net gain of adaptations over the course of your training week or entire training cycle. Inevitably you’d have to pay the price by underperforming on your key workouts, such as VO2max intervals and tempo runs. In other words; you may win the battle on easy run days but lose the war on race day.
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HOW LONG SHOULD EASY RUNS BE?
The length of your easy runs depends on your training level and race distance. As a rule of thumb, for every race distance you move up, your easy run and long run become 30 – 40% longer. (Notice that you don’t have to double up on easy runs just because your race distance is twice as long.) For example, a 6 mile easy run for the 10K becomes roughly a 9 mile easy run for the half marathon.
At the very least you would want to have a mid-week lengthy easy run and a real long run on the weekend. In that scenario, your mid-week run is roughly 70% the distance of your long run. If, however, you schedule more easy runs during the week then you could space out the easy mileage more evenly. Though, easy runs should be of a substantial length and not be confused with recovery runs.
An exception from that rule are ‘doubles’. Running twice a day, where your second run is executed on partially depleted glycogen stores is a viable alternative to running one longer easy run. Not only will you produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, you will also reap the benefit of elevated growth hormone levels twice. That is, if your lifestyle allows for 2 runs a day occasionally.
As far as mesocycles are concerned (focus blocks within a peak train cycle), easy runs will be more frequent but shorter in the base training period. As you move closer to race day some easy runs will be replaced by tempo runs and VO2max intervals. The remaining easy runs are kept fairly long to ensure that the adaptations that have been built up in prior cycles aren’t lost.
The key takeaway of this article: Don’t run easy runs faster than prescribed just because you can. I myself slip into the comfortably hard training mode of marathon or tempo pace occasionally simply because I feel more accomplished. But don’t be fooled. There is little to gain but much to lose. You will inevitably pay the price by being overly fatigued on your key workouts.
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