You have to take it easy to go hard.
Just as you need balance between periods of work and periods of rest, you need balance across the workouts in your week. You can’t sustain a high level of intensity for very long without affecting your performance at the best, or heading to burnout or injury at the worst. Whether you slot them every third day or every other day — or every day! — easy runs deserve attention in your week, not to pad your mileage, but to pad your system from harm. Think of them as the shock absorbers in your training schedule.
How often you run easy depends on many variables, including your time in the sport, your goals, your age, and your injury history. You’ll have to experiment to find what works best for you. Start by taking an honest look at your schedule over the last few weeks. How many easy runs were planned? How many of these were actually executed at an easy pace? Often, planned easy runs wind up being executed at too fast a pace, whether from competition with training partners or some other external factor that sweeps us into a comfortably hard pace, not a comfortably easy pace. You want to see some variability in your week, either in an alternation of easy-hard-easy runs or in some other cycle that, when graphed, creates a sawtooth design, not a flat line.
Consider this: if you are running your easy runs too hard, you’re probably running your hard runs too easy. The fatigue you carry from going too fast on easy days will adversely affect your ability to go fast on hard days and thereby undermine your performance. It’s an example of the body working toward balance by dampening the highs and lows. We want instead to cultivate a balance between higher highs and more mellow lows by paying attention to easy runs.
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What qualifies as easy? Your own experience may vary, but easy is slow enough to feel really light, but not artificially slow. (If you slow down your pace too much, your stride will feel unnatural and cumbersome.) When you run this easy pace, you should feel springy, light, and comfortable. It should feel effortless and easy. For many people, nasal breathing is still an option at this easy pace. That’s not to say you have to breathe through your nose, just that you could take a few nasal breaths without the feeling of suffocating. You should be able to carry on a full conversation — if not in monologue, in dialogue of sentences and even paragraphs. If your speaking is clipped to phrases or shorter elements of speech, you’re working too hard.
Run your easy runs at this fully conversational pace. Run your warmup and cooldowns at this pace, too. Pay special attention to your pace on the cooldowns. If you can run these nice and easy, you’ll get your systems back into balance sooner — and you won’t find yourself continuing to sweat even after you leave the shower on warm summer days. Running cooldowns slowly enough is a learned skill, especially if you have training partners accustomed to pushing the pace. After running faster intervals, it can be tough to slow down enough to begin active recovery. But you need to pull back to allow your body to come back into equilibrium—to come back to balance.
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Endurance sports coach Sage Rountree is author of books including The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery and The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. Sage writes on sports for Yoga Journal and on yoga for publications including Runner’s World, Lava Magazine, and USA Triathlon Life. Find her on Twitter at @sagetree.