Easy Running - How to do it
Last week we talked a bit about why easy running is important. But how do you actually do it? What exactly do we have to do to get what benefits? There’s really two types of easy running which are used for two different purposes. Developmental workouts and recovery runs. How we approach each type is based on what we’re actually trying to accomplish with those workouts.
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Development
The primary purpose of easy effort runs is to either develop the cardiovascular system or the metabolic engine we use for endurance events. Often we are training both of these systems simultaneously. Despite being “easy” these are workouts, and consequently they can sometimes require decent recovery (i.e. sleep, nutrition, and hydration). That’s why the day after a long run is normally an easy recovery run, even if the entirety of the run was done at “easy” effort. But these workouts normally provide the majority of the improvement we see over a training block for your typical amateur athlete.
Recovery workouts are the runs that we normally think of when we are talking about “easy” runs. These are purposely designed to help us recover from the last hard effort so that we can be ready for the next one. The physiological goal of the workout is to get fresh nutrients to tissues that were stressed in the previous workout so that our body can repair them, without beating them up even more.
Ways to gauge how “easy” it is
Our heart rate, pace, and perceived effort can all be used to determine how hard we’re working at any given time. But which one we use (or combination thereof), should really be guided by the purpose of the workout. If we’re doing a developmental run (i.e. trying to improve our cardiovascular or metabolic systems), we probably want to pay more attention to heart rate and perceived effort. If we’re doing a recovery run, then we probably need to pay more attention to pace and perceived effort.
Our heart rate is a good indication of how hard our metabolism is working. As the intensity of a workout goes up, the amount of oxygen we’re using will also increase. This then results in higher heart rates as we approach maximum stroke volume. If we know where our lactate threshold is (i.e. when our fuel mixture becomes more carbohydrates than fats), then can use that as the ceiling for our workout. This occurs at roughly 85% of maximal effort for most of us. For example, let’s say we have a runner named Steve. Steve’s Lactate Threshold (85% of his maximal heart rate) is at around 175, then we know that he has to stay BELOW 175 in order to train his body to get better at relying on fat as its primary fuel source. Ideally, we really want to stay well below that level, probably in the 150-160 range for someone like Steve so that we don’t accidentally trip into that higher octane metabolic pathway on accident going up a hill.
Pace can be used to set an upper limit to how fast we’re moving on recovery days. As we increase our speed, the amount of impact our muscles and tendons have to absorb and exert also increases. If we limit how fast we’re moving (i.e. “I’m not going to run faster than X-minute pace today”), then we can help ensure we’re not furthering the damage those tissues sustained in the previous workout(s). You may be surprised by how slow you go when you do this, as your heart rate will be higher than you think it should be for how “easy” it is. But remember, you’re not getting to rely on the stored kinetic energy in those elastic calves and Achilles, and instead have to actually generate all the oomph it takes to move forward. Consequently, it’s normally a good idea to monitor both your pace (to minimize beating up injured tissues) and your heart rate (to minimize strain to your cardiovascular and metabolic systems).
Perceived effort can be a bit of a tricky beast, as the mind is so incredibly powerful. But it can be a useful tool on recovery days especially. If our resting heart rate is really high because we had a really long or hard workout the previous day, then it stands to reason that our “normal” heart rate thresholds are probably going to be a little off when gauging how hard we’re working. Our pace and heart rate also don’t always do the best at incorporating our mental state (and weariness). Sometimes our brain needs a recovery day too. Consequently, especially on recovery days, it can be really important to use your perceived effort level to gauge how hard you’re actually working.
The hard parts
Maintaining good mechanics
Maintaining good mechanics at lower speeds can be difficult. The biggest reason for this is that it’s simply easier to make sure everything is engaged when we have higher force output. The most common thing that I see when people run at lower speeds (i.e. running easy) is they fail to engage their glutes, resulting in their knee buckling on impact. This can really set you up for IT band and SI problems if easy running makes up the majority of your training time like most endurance athletes. The other common mechanical issue I see a lot at lower intensities is overstriding. Basically what happens is that let our foot from the top of the knee drive portion of the cycle and we wait for the ground to get to our foot, instead of the other way around. This is also caused by a failure to engage the glutes.
Actually running easy and not accidentally running too hard
It’s pretty easy to run harder than we mean to, especially on recovery days or on days with adverse weather conditions. On recovery days especially, it can feel “easier” to run at a faster speed, making use of that free energy we get from our shock absorbing springs (i.e. our calves and Achilles tendons). But if they’re already beat up from a hard effort the day before, then we need to be sure we’re going easy enough to further damage and just hard enough to stimulate some blood flow. The other time it’s easy to run too hard is in adverse weather conditions. If it’s really hot or cold, our bodies have to work harder just to maintain a healthy core temperature, which means less of the blood of each heart beat is actually going to the muscles. If it’s really windy, it can be pretty easy to be running too fast with the tailwind, and then not slow down when we turn the corner and are running into it. Our bodies like rhythm, and it’s a pretty normal reaction to unintentionally work harder to keep the rhythm the same. So be sure to watch your heart rate on adverse weather days more so than your pace.
A failure to run easy when we need to is the primary reason why a lot of people don’t improve despite a lot of time and effort. They’re simply running too hard, too frequently, for their bodies to adapt to the strains they’re putting on them. If we go easy on the “easy” days, we are still working hard enough to develop the cardiovascular and metabolic engines that make the whole thing work. And if we actually go easy enough on recovery days to make it a recovery day, we’ll be in a better position to get more out of the next “quality” workout. Training beats us up. Hard training beats us up more. Recovery is where we get faster. Recovery is what allows us to go harder or longer on the “quality” days, getting more out of those workouts than if we enter them with fried legs. So take it easy out there. Train smarter, not harder.