Run easy to run fast
All too often we hear advice to incorporate easy runs into our training schedule. Such runs are said to bolster recovery between hard sessions, while at the same time increasing our overall weekly mileage. The result is a supposedly ‘fresher’ body that’s primed to reap the aerobic benefits of future training sessions.
Anecdotal accounts suggest that easy runs are the ‘secret’ to achieve faster timings, and a growing body of scientific literature appears to back such claims. Overall, the gist is clear: easy runs are integral in elevating one’s performance. But what does it actually mean to run ‘easy’?
Base runs are not easy runs, vice versa
First, there’s a need to clear a common misconception concerning easy runs and base runs. Too often do runners mix both up, consequently failing to maximise the gains conferred from each type of run and sabotaging their own training in the process.
Base runs, as its name clearly implies, aim at maintaining your aerobic fitness. To achieve that objective, base runs are meant to be conducted at a moderate intensity. Using a scale of 1 (unimpeded breathing; lounging on a sofa) to 10 (short and rapid breathing; sprinting), base runs should be carried out at an intensity of 5 to 6. You should be breathing comfortably and able to hold a conversation. Base runs typically range anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes.
On the other hand, easy runs are meant to loosen up your legs and increase blood circulation. Such runs should not exceed 60 minutes in length (I personally stick to 40 minutes). In reference to the scale mentioned earlier, easy runs should be carried out at an intensity of 4 to 5. While it’s not exactly a leisurely stroll, easy runs should feel substantially easier than a base run. Done correctly, you should even be able to sing a song during an easy run!
As pacing is of minimal importance for an easy run, one should refrain from going fast. As simple as it sounds, this may actually be challenging for many runners. All too often do we find ourselves succumbing to faster paces once the body is adequately warmed up. Obviously, every runner’s easy pace will vary relative to his/her level of fitness. As a rule of thumb, the pace of easy runs should be at least two minutes slower than your marathon pace. Feel free to go even slower; in fact, I highly encourage you to do so.
Pole, Pole (slowly, slowly …)
In his book, Running with The Kenyans, Adharanand Finn observed that Kenyan runners typically train twice a day - a fast session in the morning followed by an easy run in the late afternoon. If you have been labelling your 5:30mins/km runs on Strava as ‘easy’, it may interest you that the world record holders and Olympic champions that Finn ran with often went at 7mins/km or even slower. Finn actually thought that the Kenyans were playing a joke on him by running so slowly (they weren’t).
When asked why the athletes deliberately ran at such paces, coach Ian Kiprono explained that doing so prevents the body and mind from dreading training. “If you always push,” he said, “the body will start to fear training. But if training is often easy, and then sometimes you push, the body will be more accepting”. Easy running thus confers both physical and mental benefits.
“This is Ethiopian doping!”
Like the Kenyans, Ethiopian athletes also incorporate regular easy runs into their training program. But instead of simply going really slowly, the Ethiopians devised a unique approach towards easy running: going in zigzags. As noted by Michael Crawley in his book cum anthropological study, Out of Thin Air, Ethiopian athletes make concerted efforts to blaze new trails by deliberately criss-crossing well-trodden paths. Instead of sticking to hard-packed trails, they consciously avoid the former in favour of less firmly packed ground. Such efforts may sometimes lead them to scramble through rocky terrains, or even though muddy segments. This practice of zigzagging, combined with various environmental obstacles, inevitably forces the athletes to slow down.
Interestingly, Crawly discovered that the practice of zigzag running was not handed down from coaches. Instead, it was a spontaneous idea born from the athletes themselves. “This is Ethiopian doping!”, claimed one of the athletes, “If you run like this you can do more without getting injured”. Crawley surmised that by avoiding firmly packed ground, the athletes also avoided repetitive strain on the muscles incurred by running in a straight line on the road. “No one is planning to go zigzagging through the forest,” explained coach Meseret, “but unintentionally they do a kind of training like that, and it gives them an advantage to be the best athletes in cross-country races.
” The Art of Easy Running
If anything, the Kenyan and Ethiopian experiences teach us that easy runs are adopted even by elite athletes. And since it works for them, perhaps we too may glean some benefits from easy running.
Assuming that you have made the decision to incorporate easy running into your training plan, all that remains is to put theory into practice. As there are no rules dictating how easy runs are to be conducted, here are three guidelines that you may consider:
1. Minimise emphasis on pace; if you think you’re already going slow, go even slower.
2. Have a running buddy; converse at length with each other. It breaks the monotony and prevents each other from subconsciously revving up the pace.
3. Pick a challenging environment; let your pace be dictated by the environment. Walk, zigzag, or scramble up rocks if necessary. But always do so at a comfortable pace.