As a Coach, the most common thing I have to teach a new client is to pull back the paces on their easy days. I often hear “it feels unnatural” or “I can’t slow down”. But when I look at Olympic-bound marathoner Trevor Hofbauer who runs 3:05/km for 42.2k and can run at a 5:00/km pace with mortals, I know the latter comment is simply not the case. Yes, it may feel unnatural if you’re used to running faster, but practice makes perfect.
The general rule of thumb is these types of aerobic runs should make up approximately 80% of your training plan. Here are six reasons WHY it is so important to keep easy days in your training plan:
1. Injury. Running is a high impact sport which means all runners are susceptible to injury. Once getting certified in gait analysis, I recognized just how important running easy is to reducing injury. The faster we run, the more impact we incur. Why? Simply put, we hit the ground with greater vertical load.
2. Training effect. Different adaptations occur running fast versus slow. Easy days work on our slow-twitch muscle fibres. These muscle fibres have higher density of mitochondria and capillaries. Mitochondria produce energy. And capillaries have the ability to grow in number and size essentially increasing oxygen supply to muscles. Energy and oxygen are required for intense runs. And the more we have of both, the less quickly we will fatigue.
3. Mileage. Runners who can run more miles tend to be more economical when they run. The more you do of anything, the better you get at it. But you can’t build mileage running hard every day. You would physically burn out.
4. Cumulative fatigue. Running everything too fast can turn you into a “one-speed-wonder”. You’re too physically fatigued to really maximize your speed workouts. And running fast all the time is also mentally exhausting. If you push hard every time you tie up your laces, you’re going to use up your mental energy for when you really need it most…during those tough intense sessions and likely make you fall short of your goal paces.
5. Fat burning. Running easy utilizes our fat burning (oxidative) zone. Sure, burning calories comes quicker with high intensity exercise. But it’s not sustainable. And it doesn’t train our body to utilize fats for energy. Further, the easier we run, the longer we can go. So, you may in fact be able to burn more calories in the long run (pun intended) by running easy.
6. It’s fun! Yes, that’s right. Running easy allows you to be social by visiting with friends while doing the thing you love the most.
This list is by no means exhaustive of the benefits to keeping your easy days easy. But each of these reasons alone is reason enough, in my books.
How do you know if you’re running too fast? 1) Try the talk test. Could you talk to someone beside you? 2) Check your heart rate. Is your heart rate above 80% of your max? 3) Are you out of breath? If you answer YES to any of these questions, you’re likely outside of your aerobic zone.
Try running on RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and covering up your watch on your easy days. Depending on nutrition, sleep, and many other factors, your aerobic pace can swing drastically day over day. Don’t worry about your average pace on Strava (no one really cares but you!). That isn’t going to help you get faster. But being true to your easy days WILL help you get faster. Take that Strava!