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Resolve to run easy

It’s that time of year again. We’re all setting goals and resolving to get better in one way or another. I know I’ve written about goal setting before (Goal Setting), so I figured I would offer a different piece of advice that hopefully will help some folks. I recommend learning how to run easy.

Running easy isn’t sexy and cool like committing to doing 2-5 miles of speed work at least once a week. It is boring. It makes us feel slow. It makes us feel like we’re one of those “poor pitiful joggers”. First off, if you’re one of those folks who condescendingly looks down on “joggers”, shame on you. Secondly, they’ve actually got something figured out: You don’t have to go all out to see the benefits of putting on your running shoes. In fact, going easy is oftentimes more beneficial than going hard. It all depends on what the purpose of the workout is.

For endurance athletes, there are really two types of “easy” effort workouts. There are the all important recovery runs which allow us to get in more quality work over a given week, month, or year. And then there are the easy miles that should fill up the majority of our mileage budget. But to really understand the how’s and why’s of what we’re doing, it’s important to break down the physiological stimulus we’re getting from either type of workout.

Metabolic gains – The reason endurance athletes spend the majority of their mileage budget on easy miles is simply because metabolic efficiency is possibly the single most important thing for the average amateur athlete. The old adage of “miles matter” is true simply because the more miles (i.e. time) we can spend training the cardiovascular and metabolic systems, the more efficient our energy expenditure becomes. This allows us to go longer and faster without running out of glycogen (i.e. hitting the wall). The relatively low effort of easy running doesn’t require any real activation of the metabolic pathways that turn carbohydrates into forward movement. Yes we’re burning carbohydrates, but it’s really only to make it easier to break down fat as our primary fuel source. The majority of our fuel mixture is coming from stored fatty acids. So, assuming we’re out for a long enough time (i.e. long runs), we’re teaching our body to be stingy with our precious carbohydrate reserves.

The first cohort at the Couch-to-5k program. Even though there was a wide variety in skill and fitness levels, everyone benefited from the easy runs at the park by working on their metabolic and cardiovascular systems. And they got to enjoy the good company to boot!

Cardiovascular gains – The majority of what we do as endurance athletes utilizes the aerobic metabolic pathways. We’re operating at an intensity level that combines fuel (hopefully mostly fat, with some carbohydrates in the mix) with oxygen to make ATP, which we then use to produce the muscle contractions that propel us. This means that the more oxygen we can deliver to the mitochondria that turn that fat into ATP, the faster we can produce ATP, and the faster we can run without anaerobically burning through our glycogen reserves. Needless to say, the ability to get oxygen to the muscles is critical. And there’s no better way to develop a whole host of cardiovascular gains than easy running. It helps increase our heart’s stroke volume (i.e. more blood and oxygen per pump), reducing the maximal heart rate needed to produce any given amount of energy. It increases the density of our capillary beds, the networks of the tiniest blood vessels that actually feed our muscles, increasing the amount of oxygen a muscle can absorb at any given time. And the best part is, you don’t have to go hard to get these developments. In fact, going too hard actually risks increasing our blood pressure enough to potentially rupture those capillaries that we’re trying so hard to build. Those little buggers are delicate, with walls only one cell thick, and it doesn’t take much to damage them.

After Fraser cracked his shin mountain biking, we got him on the stationary bike to get his work in. It decreased the load on his shin by getting rid of the impact, but still stimulated blood flow to the region so he'd heal faster.

Nutrient delivery – The purpose of any recovery run is to deliver nutrients to beat up or injured tissues and transport metabolic waste away, accelerating healing. By gently using the same muscles we beat up in the workout yesterday, we’re creating a demand for oxygen in the same tissues that were injured. And since our blood circulates everything, the nutrients from our high quality food (you’re nutrition is on point, right?) get shunted to those tissues as well. The influx of nutrients then helps accelerate the healing process, setting us up for another quality workout.

Minimal wear and tear – Easy efforts don’t tear us up. Especially for runners, there can be a large eccentric load on every foot strike. Eccentric loads are when a muscle is contracting as it is lengthening (i.e. the calf when we’re planting our foot on the ground). This is the opposite of a concentric load when the muscle is contracting as it is getting shorter (i.e. the glute firing as we push our leg behind us). And unfortunately eccentric loads tend to be more damaging to tissue than concentric loads. By going easy, we’re reducing the impact forces at the moment of landing and thereby reducing the eccentric load, as well as the force (i.e. load) we’re putting on the concentric contractions as well. If we do it right, we can reduce the load below the threshold where we’re causing microscopic damage to the tissue, allowing us to get a demand for blood (by increased oxygen consumption) without increasing the need for even more repair work to be done at the cellular level.

Bonus gain – There is an interaction between the amount of eccentric load we’re applying and the metabolic efficiency and heart rate we experience at any given effort level. Basically, the higher the eccentric load, the more kinetic energy we can store as we impact the ground. This energy is then released, similar to a spring, when we push back off the ground to propel ourselves forward. By reducing the eccentric load, we’re reducing the amount of energy we are getting “for free” on each step, forcing our metabolism to make up the difference. This in turn puts a higher demand on our cardiovascular system to be able to supply enough oxygen to keep the metabolic furnaces running within the muscle. Less eccentric load = less free energy = more demand on the metabolic/cardiovascular systems at any given pace. This is why our heart rate often goes down when we pick up the pace a little bit. Intentionally managing the balance of damage and metabolic demand is possibly the most important part of figuring out what your training paces should be.

I realize that this is kind of a long-winded way to say “run easy”, but hopefully you learned something. Running easy isn’t necessarily “junk” miles or wasted effort. There is a time and a place for it if used appropriately. I (and many coaching greats) believe that more of us could probably benefit from more easy running. Yes, we need to do the hard work that makes us faster. But if you’re an endurance athlete, you need to do the work that 1) allows you to do the hard work and 2) support the metabolic demands of an awesome race performance. Just like with any other type of stimulus though, it’s about applying it at the right time, in the right amount.

Next week: How to actually do the easy effort work.

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