Running easy sounds like it should be easy, but that would be too predictable. It turns out, to run at a pace that’s actually legitimately ‘easy’ requires a serious amount of self-control and attention to how you’re feeling. When a new coach told me I needed to back down my pace on my everyday runs to get faster, I was more than a bit confused. How could running even easier than my usual daily pace possibly make me faster?
The short answer: That was exactly what I needed to make huge strides in my speed. David Roche, coach and author of “The Happy Runner,” writes that the key to a good training plan is simple: “Run lots, not too much, mostly easy. Take breaks when needed, but don’t take breaks needlessly.”
SLOW DOWN TO GET FAST
My needless breaks were coming in the form of overuse injuries, so I was willing to try anything — even if it meant feeling super slow in the process. It was painful, honestly. Running easy at first feels akin to how I imagine a golden retriever feels when you hook him to a leash and then throw a ball up the trail but don’t let him chase it. But I persisted in this experiment, not because I wanted to, but because I was too injured to do much else. After five months following Roche’s advice, I looked at my pace for the first time: An easy run was around 8:10 min/mile pace. When I did my first 5K after months of prep back in 2009, my finishing time was around 25 minutes: significantly slower than my easy pace now.
“That is the central premise of running training — easy, chill running now begets fast, fun running later.”
If you’re consistently feeling a little more fatigued than you want to be, a little too sore after most runs, and having trouble really making speedwork count, you might need to re-adjust what your easy/casual/endurance pace is by slowing down to get fast. “That is the central premise of running training — easy, chill running now begets fast, fun running later,” Roche reminds us.
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
TAKE A LONGER WARMUP
If you’re used to running the second you hit the pavement, it’s time to relearn the art of the warmup. Walking for a few minutes helps get your muscles prepared to work, and it also helps keep you from starting your run like it’s the start of a race. After a few minutes of walking, you can start with a light jog, and increase your pace slowly from there. The steady increase into your run helps avoid injury and preps you better for any harder efforts later in the workout or later in the week.
START WITH YOUR TYPICAL EASY PACE
Then, make that pace even easier. In fact, see how easy you can run — you might feel like you could speedwalk faster than you’re going, but it’s a good experiment to see just how slowed down your running can get. Try to find a pace that’s still using a running motion versus a walking one, but where you can actually easily breathe through your nose. You won’t go quite this slow for your easy pace, but knowing how slow you’re able to go helps dial in the right easy pace.
USE THE TALK TEST
For a hard effort, a single word or sentence should be difficult to wheeze out. For a moderate effort, short sentences should be possible. For a truly easy effort, you should be able to recite poetry or lines from a play, talk about the latest episode of your favorite show or dissect last night’s baseball game. If you’re running solo, this becomes less obvious since you’re usually not chatting away with yourself, but you can test it out by seeing if you can easily sing along with whatever is playing on your headphones or just reciting lines from a favorite song out loud. If you’re having trouble singing along, drop your pace.
In dealing with a comeback from an injury, I rediscovered the joy of run-walking for keeping a pace easy. A lot of new runners start with run/walks, and abandon them as quickly as possible in favor of running a continuous mile. But I think for easy running, run/walks still have a place in our training. They allow us to keep our heart rate low and to actually do more work. For a lot of runners, 45 minutes of steady running can seem impossible, but 60 minutes of 3 minutes of running punctuated by 1 minute of walking feels easy and still nets 45 minutes of running. If you have any trouble keeping your running easy enough to hold a conversation, then consider adding walking intervals to ease up the pace.
USE HEART RATE IF YOU CAN’T PACE YOURSELF BY FEEL
For some people, it’s impossible to separate easy from easy-moderate in terms of exertion, so you might need to add more data. A heart rate monitor can be hugely helpful in making sure you’re in the ‘easy’ zone, though what counts as easy varies from person to person. In general, you want to be below 140 BPM (beats per minute) to consider a run easy, and as you get older, that number gets lower.
“If you view training as a fight, eventually your body will fight back through injuries, stagnation or burnout.”
STOP FIGHTING YOUR BODY
Ultimately, running easy teaches us to feel ease in our bodies and in our running. Races are meant to be hard, but the day-to-day running shouldn’t feel like a grind every time you head out the door. If you save the hard efforts for those key interval runs and for race day, you’ll be a stronger, faster runner as a result. “If you view training as a fight, eventually your body will fight back through injuries, stagnation or burnout,” Roche says. He’s exactly right — and I know because I was there, and coming out the other side, running easier than ever has given me a newfound appreciation for running and rekindled my love of the sport.