In May 2014, Sally Kipyego, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000m, sped to a 30:42.26 win at Stanford’s Payton Jordan Invitational – a pace that works out to 3:05 per kilometre.
Achieving that pace for 10,000m requires Kipyego to log plenty of hard track sessions and tempo runs. Yet on her non-workout days, she ambles along at 5:19 min/km pace, sometimes even slower.
“I think most Kenyans do that,” Kipyego 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 two gold medals at the same Olympics where Kipyego took silver. Until the autumn of 2013, Farah had been averaging 4:30 minutes per kilometre for up to 40 per cent of his weekly volume. But as he was preparing for his marathon debut in London, his coach, Alberto Salazar, instructed him to speed up his easy-day pacing in order to get more benefit from all that mileage. Farah now runs much faster; with training partner Galen Rupp, he works down to 3:26 pace on easy days.
If the faster pace leaves Farah with heavy legs, Salazar doesn’t sweat it; he told Running Times in March 2014 that the goal of feeling fresh for workouts is overrated. “If you’re always worried about feeling perfect for every workout,” he says, “you may never really get the conditioning you need.”
So who is right, Kipyego or Farah? And more important, what is right for you?
What easy runs do
They’re all the other kilometres – 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 is the Rodney Dangerfield of distance training: it receives precious little respect. Some hardliners might even use the term “junk KMs” 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 using mostly slow-twitch muscle fibres. They have a higher density of mitochondria, high levels of aerobic enzymes and greater capillary density than fast-twitch fibres, which are more involved in higher-intensity training, says Dan Bergland, principal sport physiologist at Volt Sportlab. On easy days, “You increase mitochondria and capillaries and blood flow to those muscles, so they’re better able to utilise 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, a running coach, “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.”
Your pace or mine?
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.
A dozen years ago, Barker began working with Carrie Tollefson, a four-time national champion at Villanova University. 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 130 or 150 kilometres 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 OK to back off on those easy days and not be so stuck on the watch and always running 4:04 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 kilometres. 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 per cent of maximum heart rate) or take occasional treadmill runs to monitor pace.
Avoiding the rut
Currently working with athletes across the spectrum of age and ability, Ian Dobson, an assistant with the Oregon Track Club Elite coaching staff in Eugene, Oregon (which is Kipyego’s team), sees runners fail to back off on easy days. He meets weekly with Team Run Eugene Flyers, a group of recreational runners, to oversee workouts. “I see some of them warm up and then run 1600m 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 6:52/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 160 kilometres a week, chances are his average training-run pace is faster than an 800m runner or 1600m runner running only 48 kilometres a week. The 1600m runner is running really fast when he’s on the track and really slow when he’s not. Brenda Martinez, who has PBs of 1:57.91 for 800m and 4:00.94 for 1500m, is a perfect example of this. Under the guidance of coach Joe Vigil, she’ll run 8 × 1000m repeats at 2:55, but on her easy days, she’ll run 5:37-minute pace.
Keeping the rhythm
While Farah’s 3:26 easy-day pace boggles the mind of most nonelites, he’s within the range of an easy day that a variety of running calculators prescribe. But not everyone is. Take Jason Ryf, who ran the 2013 Boston Marathon in 2:23:06 at age 42. He rarely trains slower than 3:45 minutes per kilometre. Most training calculators would suggest that Ryf run his easy mileage in the 3:54–4:10 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 kilometres I’m right back at 3:45-minute pace.”
But Ryf’s training is solely focused on the marathon. Any racing he does at shorter distances is training for his next marathon, and his PBs at 10K, 16K 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.
Ray Treacy, whose Providence women were the 2013 NCAA cross country champions, 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? In an email to Running Times, he details the downsides of going slow: 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 orthopaedic trauma than the slow run,” he writes. “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. Marielle Hall, the University of Texas senior who won the NCAA 5000m title in 2014, picked up the pace of her easy days from 5 minutes to about 4:10 over the course of the academic year. “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, who started coaching Hall in 2013. “I think [Hall’s] base fitness slowly increased. I’d check with her and she never told me it was feeling too fast. So for her it worked out really well. I know some people are really different and some coaches will say ‘Oh, you’ve got to take every easy day really easy.’ And that might work for some, but for Marielle it didn’t.”
What’s right for you?
Returning, then, to the easy 10K you do four days a week before work: 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 at work.
“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 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.
Levels of easy
You can calculate your easy-day target pace using a range of methods, from a percentage of current 10K ability to something a little less scientific – perceived exertion – as defined by Roy Benson, exercise physiologist and distance-running coach. We calculate the range for a runner who can do a 40:00 10K (4:01 pace) or a 3:04 marathoner (4:24 pace).
|Run type||% of current 10K race pace||% of current marathon pace||% of max. heart rate||Perceived exertion||For a 40:00 10K/3:04 marathon (min/mi)|
|RECOVERY||130-138||119-127||60-70||Very easy; a short, slow run, jogging||5:14-5:33|
|EASY||122-130||112-119||65-75||Conversational; not fatiguing unless distance is longer than average and/or weather or terrain/course provide challenges||4:54-5:14|
|PROGRESS TO MODERATE||112-126||102.5-115.5||70-85||Easy to start, with a progression to near marathon pace; easily sustainable and only moderately fatiguing||4:30-5:04|