The Life Changing Magic Of Slowing Down
If you want to run fast, you have to learn to run easy.
And, we get it. When you lace up your shoes it’s tempting to give into the part of your brain that wants to go FAST. We love going fast! Going fast is the best. BUT – if you don’t make the majority of your miles (for most runners it’s 80-85%) very, very easy, you’re undermining your potential to speed up down the line.
One of the most common reasons people feel like they’re slowing down is because counterintuitively, they’re running too fast. Feeling slow leads them to push a little too hard on runs, which can make them slow down even more. This leads to an uncomfortable cycle of fatigue, burnout, and stagnation.
Generally, runners will reach 80-90 percent of their potential by running a lot at easy pace. Of course, a balanced training plan will also include some time at intensity to develop top-end speed and prevent stagnation. But, if you run too fast too often, you’ll fall far short of your potential.
All runners benefit from the cardio-vascular and muscular-structural development that comes from logging easy miles. Without a solid base of easy days, you won’t’ have the foundation to support training at intensity.
WHY RUN EASY
One of the primary reasons to run easy is for aerobic development. To understand that, we’re going to take a detour into the aerobic system.
In order to exercise, your body needs to break down sugar and convert it to glycogen so that it can be used as energy or fuel. With adequate oxygen, the body uses the aerobic system in a process known as aerobic glycolysis to power continuous running. In the aerobic system, ATP is produced through Pyruvic Acid and Lipid/Protein fragments enter the Kreb Cycle and the Electron Transport Cycle.
Whew. My brain exceeded 10k effort just writing that. The gist of it is, that when you’re running easy, your muscles have enough oxygen to produce all the energy they need to perform. That improves your body’s ability to transport and efficiently use oxygen, which will enable you to run faster. That system makes up 85-99 percent of the energy needed to race.
On easy days, you’re using mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers. These fibers have a higher density of mitochondria, higher levels of aerobic enzymes and greater capillary density than fast-twitch muscle fibers. The greater number of capillaries you have surrounding each muscle fiber, the faster you can transport oxygen and carbohydrates into your muscles.
On easy days when you’re purely reliant on those slow-twitch muscles, you’re increasing the mitochondria, capillaries, and blood flow to those muscles so that they’re better able to use oxygen.
When you run too fast on your easy days, your body is forced to run without adequate oxygen, which means that you’re not provoking these very important adaptations. Without that adaptation, you won’t be able to add in appropriate intensity.
Runners also need easy days to maintain aerobic fitness and make gains in economy. Running easy helps promote good form. Running economy is one of the most elastic metrics throughout a runner’s career and can be continually improved over the course of years and years.
HOW EASY IS EASY
Easy is a feeling, not a pace.
Easy is your park-loop cruise singing along to mid-2000’s Usher. When I need to pump the breaks, I pop on this song as a reminder of what easy really means. For me, easy means slow, smooth, and embracing my inner R n B star.
If the Usher method doesn’t feel scientific enough for you, there are a couple of other ways to figure out what your easy pace should be. We encourage athletes to hone in on perceived effort over a specific pace or heart rate and focus on hitting an effort level that feels purely conversational. At easy pace, you should be able to speak in full sentences, and sing along to whatever R n B playlist you’re rocking to (No? Just me?). If you are training with a chest-strap heart rate monitor, you can aim to train at 55-75 percent of your max heart rate. Make sure you’re not using a wrist-based monitor, as those are inaccurate, and bear in mind that variables like sleep and caffeine consumption can affect your heart rate too, which is one reason why HR based training isn’t our go-to.
Some other gauges can be running at 122-130 percent of your 10k pace or 112-119 percent of your marathon pace. That means, for a 50 minute 10k runner or a 3:50 marathoner, you should be in the 9:50 to 10:25 pace range for your easy days.
CAN I GO TOO SLOW?
You really can’t go too slow unless your form starts to break down. While we’ve seen elite marathoners rock 8-9 minute pace easy days, we wouldn’t recommend going much slower than 16-minute pace, when you’re more slogging than running. As long as you are technically running, and focusing on light, soft strides, you can’t go too slow!
But, you can go too fast.
Aerobic development is one of the most important factors for long-term development. Sure, strides, VO2max workouts and tempos are sexy on Strava and increase your fitness and top-end speed in some key ways. BUT, without a foundation of easy running, those hard efforts will be for naught.
The fitter athletes get, the easier it will be for them to embrace easy pace. A common denominator among the most successful runners is a big gap between their easy pace and their workout pace.
One difficulty many beginning runners often have a hard time distinguishing between 10k, tempo, and marathon efforts and end up running everything kinda sorta hard. One of the gravest dangers to endurance athletes is the grey area effort. This is an effort that many people come into the program with and is defined (unscientifically) as one of those days where you just go a little too hard. To avoid that effort, ask yourself, could I run slower? If the answer is yes, you have nothing to lose by cooling your jets!
If you want to speed up, you’re first going to have to slow down. Embracing Usher pace on your easy days is the best way to chase your long-term potential, and to enjoy the process.