Runners are known for pushing limits. But that’s not always a good thing. Pace creep, or picking up the pace, can lead to fatigue, burnout and injury. Whether it’s caused by internal or peer pressure, hammering often rears up in easy and recovery runs.
“Depending on the context of a training plan, the body works best in polarity…When you extend yourself—whether that’s in a long run or a workout—you need the opposite, the polarity of that,” says Jonathan Marcus, director and elite coach at High Performance West in Portland, Oregon. “The simplicity of the hard-easy back-to-back days is an attractive, but useful, heuristic.”
While coaches and exercise scientists debate a multitude of training factors, most generally agree on the principle of taking easy days easy. In theory, this allows an athlete’s higher intensity days to be higher quality. In practice, this requires diligence.
“It takes a very strong runner—physically, mentally, emotionally—to be patient and disciplined. You have to be disciplined if you want to see advancement,” Marcus says.
Take, for example, the Hoka One One Naz elite team coached by Ben Rosario in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Our easy days are very easy. At this level we don’t have to deal with athletes going too fast on their easy runs too often because by this time they have probably already learned, the hard way, that anything else just doesn’t work,” Rosario says. (You can even check out the athletes’ training logs on Final Surge.)
There’s a time and a place for throwing down, but easy runs and recovery sessions are not it. Easy effort runs can serve multiple specific purposes: aerobic base and endurance-building (whether to increase initial fitness of a beginner or while increasing volume for an experienced runner); musculoskeletal adaptation; recovery from harder efforts; fuel system improvement; relaxation and fun, especially mentally or socially, while maintaining fitness.
Workouts, on the other hand, require more difficult intensities, from steady efforts up to full-on sprints. “If you understand training—extending beyond current capabilities in practice—it doesn’t count until you go beyond where you’re comfortable currently,” Marcus says. “See what your response is. Not what the watch says, but what your mind or body says.”
Here are a few ways you can start to pace yourself and improve your performance on hard days:
Choose and schedule training partners strategically. If you’d love to run with a speedster, but can’t quite keep up at a conversational or a specific effort, plan a higher intensity day (such as a tempo run) for you on their easy day.
Be mindful of herd mentality. Training groups and community-based fun runs are awesome. But they’re not races (unless you want them to be). It’s okay to set whatever pace you want or need to run; just give your buddies a head’s up to level set expectations. If you need to slow down or speed up, it’s likely others will join you.
Avoid GPS and social media app traps. Unlike most of what you see on Instagram, athlete-focused apps like Strava can show the good, bad, ugly, slow and fast. If you can’t set a low condition of satisfaction for an easy run (e.g. I expect no medals and/or congrats from Ashton Eaton when I sync this jog), turn all the gadgets off.