Sally Kipyego, Why You Need to Add Sexy Pace Runs to Your Routine third finisher at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, can hold a sub-5:00 minute pace in the 10K. Achieving that requires Kipyego to log plenty of hard track sessions and tempo runs. Yet on her non-workout days, she ambles along at 8:30-per-mile pace, sometimes even slower.
“I think most Kenyans do that,” Kipyego, who is now an American citizen and trains with the Oregon Track Club, says about taking it slow on her easy days. “As long as I can remember, when I was a junior back in Kenya, the easy days were really easy. I am kind of old school in some ways. You go by feel; you let your body tell you.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mo Farah, winner of four Olympic gold medals and the 2018 Chicago Marathon. Back in 2013, Farah had been averaging a 7:00-per-mile pace for up to 40 percent of his weekly volume. But as he was preparing for his London Marathon debut in 2014, his then coach, Alberto Salazar, instructed him to speed up his easy-day pacing in order to get more benefit from all that mileage. Farah started to run much faster; he could work down to a 5:30 pace on easy days, and averaged a sub-4:50 race pace in the Chicago Marathon.
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What Easy Runs Do
Easy runs, sometimes called recovery runs, are all the other miles—not the tempos or track repeats or long runs. They’re the entries in your training log that make up a large percentage of your weekly mileage total, but with which you don’t bother to record much data: Simply an “8” or a “6” or a “park loop” suffice to remind you what you did that day.
The easy day run is the Rodney Dangerfield of distance training: It receives precious little respect. Some hardliners might even use the term “junk miles” for Kipyego’s easy-day running, despite her international successes. Why do we do them? Because easy running—even very slow easy running—provides fundamental adaptations.
On easy days, you’re mostly using slow-twitch muscle fibers. They have a higher density of mitochondria, high levels of aerobic enzymes, and greater capillary density than fast-twitch fibers, which are more involved in higher-intensity training, says Dan Bergland, principal sport physiologist at Volt Sportlab in Flagstaff, Arizona. On easy days, “you increase mitochondria and capillaries and blood flow to those muscles, so they’re better able to utilize oxygen,” he says. “Without that, you can’t do the intense runs.”
All runners, and especially beginners and those coming back from injury, benefit from the cardiovascular and muscular-structural development easy running promotes. The base fitness a runner puts down through a preponderance of easy runs enables the athlete to safely progress to other types of training.
Seasoned runners also need easy days in order to maintain hard-earned aerobic fitness and make continual gains in running economy. Of course, competitive runners are interested in moving efficiently at race paces, the primary reason for training at a variety of intensities, in addition to running easy. But even slow running allows for modest gains in efficiency of movement.
More important, it allows for recovery from the hard days. “A runner should achieve a training effect every day,” says Dennis Barker, head coach at Augsburg College, “and to me, recovery is a training effect, maybe the most important one. It’s during recovery that adaptations from the hard training take place. If a runner doesn’t recover, the body is not going to adapt, and you’ll either continue digging a hole for yourself or get injured.”
How to Find Your Easy Pace
The question, then, is what pace is right, and what do you stand to lose if you go too fast or too slow? In a general sense, an easy run is a low-intensity effort of a short to moderate duration. So a long run, even completed at a relaxed pace, should not be considered “easy,” because, despite the pace, there comes a point where the duration raises the overall intensity out of the comfort zone.
Nearly 20 years ago, Barker began working with Carrie Tollefson, a then five-time national champion at Villanova who later went on to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games. The transition to working with Barker was initially rocky, because Tollefson wouldn’t back down on her easy runs. “At ‘Nova, we were very low-mileage, but we ran hard all the time,” Tollefson says. “And then I came to Dennis, and we were trying to hit 85 or 90 miles a week, and I couldn't do it all. I was always pushing the envelope, but I just couldn’t run a ton plus go really hard in all my workouts, my easy days and my long runs.”
Barker’s solution was to mandate that Tollefson wear a heart rate monitor and keep her easy and long runs within appropriate ranges. It worked. “Slowly but surely, running slower helped me,” Tollefson says. "By 2004 I was having my best year, and that’s when I made my Olympic team. I just needed to grow into the sport and know that it was okay to back off on those easy days and not be so stuck on the watch and always running 6:30 pace. It didn’t matter what I ran on my easy days; they were supposed to be easy."
Though Barker extols the virtues of keeping the pace relaxed on easy days, that doesn’t mean he sends his athletes out for short jogs. In fact, he’s been known to assign runners hilly routes on non-workout days to give the run a little extra benefit. But pacing is almost always reined in.
“Pace is the most important thing to keep easy on an easy day,” Barker says. “Many runners can still recover if they run a few more miles, as long as it’s still at an easy pace. But from my experience, they can’t recover if they run a faster pace, even with fewer miles. So pace really needs to be governed on easy days, [but] mileage not quite as much."
Bergland believes runners can’t really go too slow on their easy days, unless their form starts to break down. At that point, slower becomes counterproductive. In his opinion, as long as your form holds up, lower intensity trumps higher intensity for easy days.
While elite athletes have a finely tuned sense of pace and effort, rank-and-file runners often struggle with it. Bergland advises runners to use 10K race pace plus 2 minutes for easy-day pace, wear heart rate monitors (and aim for 65 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate) or take occasional treadmill runs to monitor pace.
How Easy Pace Helps You Avoid the Rut
After working with athletes across the spectrum of age and ability, Ian Dobson, a former assistant with the Oregon Track Club Elite coaching staff in Eugene, Oregon, and now race director for the Eugene Marathon, sees runners fail to back off on easy days—especially recreational runners. “I see some of them warm up and then run mile pace and 5K pace and marathon pace, and it’s essentially indistinguishable; they’re just running, you know?” he says. “Those people are suffering from this stuck-in-one-pace kind of thing. And it’s because they don’t want to run an 11-minute pace, or whatever they really need to be running, on their recovery runs.”
Those who don’t run their workouts hard enough are stuck in a middle ground, in third gear. “The common denominator among most really successful runners, people running at a high level, is a really wide chasm between training-run pace and where they work out,” Dobson says. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, but when total volume is high, your average training-run pace is probably also a bit higher.”
He explains that you see this with marathoners—when an elite athlete is running more than 100 miles a week, chances are his average training-run pace is faster than an 800-meter runner or miler running only 30 miles a week. The miler is running really fast on the track and really slow off the track. Brenda Martinez, who has PRs of 1:57.91 for 800 and 4:00.94 for 1500m, is a perfect example of this. Under the guidance of coach Joe Vigil, she’d run 8 x 1,000 meters repeats at 2:55, but on her easy days, she’ll run a 9-minute pace.
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Ray Treacy, head cross-country coach at Providence University, has his athletes running toward the faster end of the scale on most non-workout days and expresses disdain for “jogging.” The veteran coach schedules workouts every fourth day, less often than is typical, and instructs his athletes to go truly easy only immediately following hard training sessions. “The day after the hard workout might be easy,” Treacy says, “but the other two days you’re trying to get something out of it, to improve your fitness. I wouldn’t like to waste a day’s training on going for a jog; let’s put it that way.”
Some physiologists agree with the faster approach. One of those is Bob Otto, director of the Human Performance Lab at Adelphi University. The real question, he asks, is what does a slow run accomplish? He says some of the downsides of going slow are that it provides orthopedic trauma, allows athletes to practice something they would never use in a race, and provides insufficient cardiovascular or metabolic stimulus to accrue improvement.
“Conversely, the faster-paced run may provide some cardiovascular stimulus, may enhance metabolic function, mimics the biomechanics of race pace and hopefully provides less orthopedic trauma than the slow run,” he says. “Although the ideal scenario is to decrease one’s stride frequency to run slower and maintain a similar biomechanical foot strike, we know that most people change their mechanics significantly and their stride frequency moderately. I am an advocate of practicing like you want to perform and find little value in a ‘slow run.’’’
For some highly trained athletes, moving too slowly throws them off. Take Jason Ryf, who ran the 2013 Boston Marathon in 2:23:06 at age 42. He rarely trained slower than 6 minutes per mile. Most training calculators would suggest that Ryf run his easy mileage in the 6:15 to 6:40 range, but he just can’t do it. “Believe me,” Ryf says, “I go through the internal struggle quite a bit—‘Hey, I should be going slower’—because all the training books would have me going easier. I do plan on it sometimes, but after a couple of miles, I’m right back at 6-minute pace.”
But Ryf’s training is solely focused on the marathon. Any racing he does at shorter distances is training for his next 26.2-miler, and his PRs at 10K, 10 miles and the half marathon pale in comparison to his full marathon performances. Were he to spurn the long racing and target other distances, Ryf would attempt to modify his approach. “I would probably try to back off a little bit, so my legs would be fresher for workouts,” he says.
“I like to get athletes into a rhythm, whether it’s a recovery day or a general day, and not worry about pace so much. Make sure you’re getting something out of it but not killing yourself,” says Brad Herbster, men’s and women’s cross-country coach at Pittsburgh University. He points out that everyone is different and though some coaches will say ‘Oh, you’ve got to take every easy day really easy,’ that might work for some, but not for others.
So What’s Right For You?
Returning, then, to the easy 5-miler you do four days a week: Would you benefit from speeding up or slowing down? The answer, of course, depends on your goals, your other workouts, whether you’re hitting a variety of speeds during the week, your total weekly mileage, what your body is telling you each morning—and what time you have to be done.
“Runners have to pay attention and learn about themselves because an easy day will be different based on how long you’ve been running, what you’re training for, how much mileage you have in your legs, all sorts of things,” Barker says.
While you never need to emulate the program of another runner, you might experiment with varying the pace of those Rodney Dangerfield miles—and test the changes with a race. Maybe you’ll find it’s not the hard efforts—the number of reps or the grade of the hill—that will make the difference in your training program. Maybe it’s what you’re doing on the easy days.