Let’s cut straight to the point: the idea of easy runs is counterintuitive. How in the world could effortless running improve race day performance by a great margin? As more and more research has been done, easy runs have been increasingly emphasized in the training of the most elite endurance athletes in the world.
If the best of the best are running easily, that raises the ultimate question. Is easy running important?
Yes, easy runs are important. Easy runs help runners build their aerobic capacity while simultaneously recovering from more challenging workouts. In fact, easy runs are so beneficial that they should comprise over three-quarters of a runner’s training plan.
Read on to learn why easy runs are so important, how to implement easy running into your training, and the best tips and tricks to run easily with flawless execution!
Potential benefits of easy running
A common misconception in running is that runners should be huffing and puffing after every workout. This is far from the truth. On the contrary, most runs should be the opposite of this; they should be easy.
Easy runs are of utmost importance because they allow runners to improve their running endurance while simultaneously lowering the risk of injury. Easy runs are much less stressful on the body, but they still provide great cardiovascular benefits.
Before explaining why easy runs are crucial to a successful training plan, it’s important to distinguish what exactly makes a run easy.
What is an easy running pace for beginners?
An easy run is a run where runners exert low amounts of energy and effort. One method of measuring the intensity of your run is by checking your heart rate. In an easy run, your heart rate should be within 60 to 70 percent of your max heart rate. Another method is by trying to hold a conversational pace. In short, this means runners can sufficiently hold a conversation throughout the entirety of their workout.
Measuring intensity with conversational pace is great for two reasons. First, it’s an easy measuring stick because you don’t need a fancy heart rate monitor or anything of the sort. Second, it ensures runners are running at an appropriate pace.
Runners can improve their running economy by running more. Increased endurance training is linked to a greater running economy, so we cannot stress the importance of frequent running enough.
The issue that arises is overtraining injuries typically result from overuse. Runners can combat this by performing easy runs. This allows them to increase their mileage and build their aerobic base without falling victim to various injuries.
Do easy runs make you faster?
Even though easy runs are touted as beneficial for injury prevention, the overarching goal for many runners is to run faster. For those who are aiming to break a personal best or perform well in an upcoming race, are easy runs going to make you faster?
Yes, easy runs make runners faster. Runners can develop their aerobic base by running at an easy pace, subsequently making their cardiovascular system more efficient. This leads to faster times at lower efforts.
A study recently performed in 2021 concluded that the performance of elite runners is directly tied to pairing a high volume of easy runs with deliberate interval training. Within the study, the researchers found that world-class performances are consistently tied to a high volume of easy runs. The effect of easy runs on performance is substantial because it allows runners to increase their total distance ran without straining the body.
In other words, easy runs assisted elite runners in building their aerobic base. Training can be looked at as if it’s a pyramid; the base of the pyramid must be built by easy runs so that the body can cope and adapt to higher-intensity training in preparation for a race.
Without easy runs, runners will have difficulty building their aerobic capacity and, therefore, will struggle to meet the grueling demands of high-intensity interval training and tempo runs.
Are easy runs important for recovery?
While easy runs are used as a great training strategy for building an aerobic base, they may have another major benefit.
Easy runs are excellent for helping runners through the recovery process. Easy runs are good for recovery because they increase blood flow to the muscles without placing excessive strain on the body.
Running recovery practices usually emphasize things like nutrition, sleep, and stretching, but movement is an important pillar that shouldn’t be neglected!
Aerobic run vs easy run – what’s the difference?
Blood is the transporter of oxygen throughout the body, and for our muscles to properly function, oxygen must be transported from the heart to the muscles through the bloodstream. The best way to increase blood flow for recovery is through movement. Easy runs are a great way to get moving for recovery because they allow runners to move through the same patterns they usually perform when exercising.
Aside from easy runs, cross-training, such as cycling or swimming, also help boost recovery because they increase blood flow without taxing the body.
How much of my running should be at an easy run pace?
In the past, the idea of polarized training, or easy runs, was scoffed at and concluded as absurd. Who would believe that running easily could potentially translate to faster race times?
However, given the abundance of research supporting easy runs, it’s certainly something runners should experiment with in their training routines. That said, what portion of a training plan should be easy?
80% of runs should be easy, with the other 20% being performed at a higher intensity. These ratios can be changed based on an individual’s age, previous experience, injuries, etc., but 80% is a solid baseline.
The idea of running 80% easy is actually based on an economics concept called the Pareto principle. To summarize, the Pareto principle says that 20% of our efforts lead to 80% of our results.
This idea has been confirmed and supported by various researchers, including world-renowned exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler. In his TED talk on how to train like a world class endurance athlete, Seiler reveals that 80% of runs should be performed at an easy intensity for optimal performance, with 20% at high intensity. Doing so generally leads to great results.
It’s pretty amazing how one general law, such as the Pareto Principle, can apply to various aspects of life! However, I realize that not athletes and runners are created alike; different individuals deal with different factors. Multiple factors influence what percentage of runs should be performed at an easy pace.
Runners must determine their goals first: is the goal to run a 5k or a marathon?
Do you want to finish, or are you aiming for a time?
Runners must also weigh the risk-to-reward ratio of their training plan. For runners with prior injuries, performing more runs at an easy pace may be wise. Similarly, age may shift what percentage of runs should be easy. Chances are younger runners can accommodate a greater workload than older runners.
The general recommendation provided by this wealth of information is to start at 80% and experiment to find what works for you. At the end of the day, runners respond differently to the same stimulus, so it’s necessary to find what works best for you!
How often should you do easy runs?
Knowing that 80% of runs should be performed at an easy pace can be daunting for runners; that’s a large portion of their workouts! How can runners work in easy runs without disrupting their entire training plans?
How many easy runs a week?
Easy runs should be performed multiple times a week, positioned between high-intensity runs and long runs to allow runners to recover.
How often runners perform easy runs depends solely on their running schedule and how many days a week they run currently.
Due to the variance in the schedule of every runner, it is difficult to make one general recommendation about how often runners should perform easy runs. That said, there is a principle that runners should apply to incorporate easy runs into their training plans.
Easy run vs long run – what’s the difference?
Runners should run easily after running hard. This means that following either a high-intensity workout (such as intervals or fartleks) or a long run, the next run should be performed at an easy pace. This structure should be adopted to allow runners a chance to fully recover from the strain placed on their bodies during high-intensity workouts.
A tip to implement easy runs into your running regimen is to structure training cycles by workouts instead of weeks. Try structuring a cycle with 10 workouts, aiming to make 8 of those runs easy to achieve the 80/20 rule.
5 Tips for maximizing the benefits of easy runs
Easy runs should make up a large portion of your workouts, so it’s important that they are performed correctly and maximized for effectiveness. Far too often, runners push themselves during an easy run when they shouldn’t. The point of an easy run is to relax and get the blood flowing; it shouldn’t be challenging.
While cliché, running is like building a house. Your easy runs create the base; without a good base, the house will topple down under strenuous conditions.
Don’t underestimate the importance of building a good running base through easy runs. Keep them easy with the five following tips!
- Run at a conversational pace
- Run with a friend
- Use a heart rate monitor
- Calculate your easy pace
- Listen to music or a podcast
Run at a conversational pace
Running at a conversational pace may not be the most scientific way to measure a run’s intensity, but it’s simple and effective.
Run at a conversational pace to gauge if you’re running easily enough. If you can’t hold a conversation throughout the duration of your easy runs, you’re running too hard.
To hold a conversation requires you to conserve enough oxygen to physically speak. When you run hard, you’re likely huffing and puffing for air. If you can hold a conversation while running, this is a clear indicator that you’re running at a proper easy pace.
Run with a friend
Running with a friend is an extension of running at a conversational pace and can be used as an excellent measure of intensity.
If you struggle to gauge your intensity and ability to hold a conversation, run with a friend and literally have a conversation!
It can be challenging to attempt to measure and hold a conversational pace when running alone. Besides talking to yourself or singing a song, there’s no other way to know if your pace is too fast.
That is, until you add a friend into the mix! By running with a friend, you’re not only held accountable to your training schedule, but they’re a perfect tool to measure your pacing.
Have a conversation with your friend while you run. This is the perfect way to measure conversational pace!
Measure your heart rate
Heart rate monitors are great for measuring the intensity of a run based on the physiology of the body. While they can be expensive, we have a great alternative to purchasing a monitor!
Measure your heart rate, either with a monitor or manually, when running to ensure you’re running at an easy pace. Easy runs should be at the bottom of the target heart rate zone.
To use this method, runners must know their target heart rate zone when running. This zone is 50 to 85% of your maximum heart rate.
The top of the target heart rate zone is a measurement to aim for during high-intensity runs like intervals or fartleks. On the flip side, the bottom of the target heart rate zone is where easy runs should lie. Generally, you want to keep your heart rate at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate during an easy run.
Once you know the bottom of your target heart rate zone, measure your heart rate with a monitor throughout the entirety of your run.
If you don’t have a monitor, worry not. You can manually take your heart rate on either your wrist or neck.
Calculate your easy pace
Based on your race pace goals, an easy pace can be calculated to provide runners with guidance as to how fast they should be running on easy days.
Runners should estimate or calculate their easy running pace to have a measuring stick when running on easy days.
For runners interested in calculating their easy running pace based on their most recent race results, Omnicalculator is a wonderful, straightforward resource.
Estimating an easy pace is simple if you opt not to use a calculator. Simply take your race pace goal and subtract around 2 minutes to find your easy pace; however, be cautious as this is a rough guide. 2 minutes slower than your 5k pace and 2 minutes slower than your marathon pace are way different!
As a general rule of thumb, subtract more time when using longer distance race paces. Err on the easier side!
Listen to music or a podcast
One of the most prevalent issues with easy runs is that they are monotonous and boring. Running slowly takes longer, and the mind tends to wander into far-off places.
When performing easy runs, listen to music or a podcast to keep yourself entertained and focused on running at an easy pace.
Easy runs aren’t exactly strenuous; they aren’t meant to be. For many runners, the fun of running is the mental challenge and fortitude that it takes to push through a grueling workout.
So, when the easy run comes along, what do they do?
They zone out, and before you know it, they’re chugging along at a much higher pace.
If this sounds like you, listen to some music or a podcast to prevent zoning out. Choose an audiobook or something of the sort to keep yourself entertained!
For runners who want to get fancy, consider building a playlist with songs with a BPM that matches your running pace.
- About the Author
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Joshua Bartlett is a professional amateur when it comes to running – basically, he takes his mediocre running ability very seriously.
As the Editor-in-Chief at Saltmarsh Running, it is his job to make sure that readers get only highly-researched and comprehensive questions to all of their running questions.