Saturday, January 12, 2013

What Is an Easy Run?

What is an easy run?

Well, most basically, it's a run that's easy to accomplish. It's the backbone of training. It's the run that makes every other run possible.

For some runners, this is all that needs to be said. But for a lot of other runners, especially new runners or runners who are entering a new stage of fitness, the concept of "easy" can be somewhat elusive.

Heck, if you are really out of shape, there's no such thing as an easy run because nothing feels easy.

That said, I think there are a few things I can say about easy running that will help new runners and experienced runners alike, mostly because I think that most people -- believe it or not -- can do their easy running better.

The place to start when looking to understand what an easy run is and how it works in training is to think about what it's not.

An easy run is not a workout, which means that it's not a couple more things: it's not structured or planned or focused on a certain pace. It's also not broken into intervals. These thoughts help us turn to what an easy run is.

An easy run is a continuous and sustained run at a pace that is determined in the moment by the feedback your body is giving you on the run. Instead of a planned workout, where we are usually trying to hit certain paces or times or even cover a long distance (as in the long run) the easy run is executed in a relaxed way with little conscious control. We just let the body run at the pace it wants to run. It's this lack of control -- or "pushing" -- that gives the run its "easy" quality. Like a raft on a river, we just float on the current. We don't fight it.

Simple enough, right? Just let it flow.

Easy doesn't have to be slow.
I think where the confusion comes in, however, is that the flow of this metaphorical "river" (like all natural things) fluctuates from day to day and from season to season. And it even fluctuates in the run itself. Sometimes floating the river is a placid and frankly kinda boring slow-as-heck experience, from beginning to end. Usually the flow of the river begins pretty placidly, but picks up some steam as the body warms up. And then there are those days where the river -- for whatever reason -- is really pumping, and  the raft ends up catching with a swift current, and we flow along with ease at new paces.

All of these runs are easy runs, regardless of pace -- we aren't fighting the run, we're just rolling with it; that's what makes it easy.

Maybe that seems too simple, but I wanted to write this out because over the years, I've seen two types of errors in runners when it comes to easy running. The first error is often pointed out on message boards and it is probably most common in new runners. You are already familiar with it and have heard it a thousand times. Since running is hard to begin with, and we want to be faster than we are, and part of the reason we love to run is we love to fight -- we run our easy runs too hard. This leads to injury and burnout, sure. But the worst consequence of running easy runs too hard is that the runner never learns to float the river, to listen to the body, and to surf its energies -- this art is really the art of all training and racing.

The second error rarely gets pointed out, but it's at least as common, I think, and it's most common in intermediate runners [Really, if you are a new runner, you should plug your ears now.] It's possible to run your easy runs too easy. Yep. Let me say it again and put it in bold and italics: you can run your easy runs too easy.

The metaphor is getting stretched, but I think it is still apt. Running easy requires getting into the flow of the run, and that's what these runners don't allow themselves to do. They consciously hold back, making sure the effort is "easy" -- and it's as if they are backpaddling, still headed with the current, but moving downstream slower than the water wants to carry them. Instead of letting themselves flow with the river, they are tentative and cautious and perhaps also want to make sure they are in control and not overcome by the river, so they never let themselves go.

These are the runners who get stuck in training. They do everything right, by the letter, by the book, by the McMillan chart, by the heart rate monitor, but all of that PLANNING holds them back and keeps them from being able to execute the single most important run in training: the easy run. Which, as you recall, is determined in the moment by the feedback the body is giving you. We run with the river of the body, not according to the chart of the mind.

So, if you are looking to train smarter this year and get faster, I suggest that you work on your easy running. Become the raft in the river. This probably means running some of your runs slower than you think you should. But some sweet days you will catch a deep and swift current. On those days fast will be easy.

When that happens, make the smart training choice: let it freakin' ROLL.


23 comments:

  1. Easy run too easy. I must admit that idea had never occurred to me.

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    1. "Easy run" is a really vague term. This post applies most for early season and base training. Once you get into specific training, it's probably best to hold back and run easy runs more cautiously. And after a particularly hard cycle or race, you've also got to be careful not to burn yourself out and get proper recovery.

      The main thing is the vague thing: listen to your body.

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  2. I call them scribble runs:
    http://www.barefootjosh.com/?p=3318

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  3. Jeff, do you think those of us intermediate types who use heart rate training rely too much on it for easy runs? My easy ones are supposed to be below 145 bpm. Between the Detroit Half and CIM last year, I could go pretty fast (for me) at that heart rate, but right now, after three weeks of sickness and stress and poor sleep due to sickness, stress and sick kids, I'm back to glacial at that heart rate--despite my supposed base from CIM.

    Right after CIM, I ditched the monitor and did all my runs easy, and by feel. But I was wondering if I did them too fast, perhaps also contributing to my current slowness.

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    1. Good question. My head is agnostic about the heart rate monitor because I know that for some runners they are really useful, but in my heart I am against them, totally (the heart being totalitarian in its impulses).

      I guess I would look at your situation and say -- after a marathon, in recovery not just from the race but the grind of training -- I wonder, were you going too fast? Or maybe running too much? Was it the body that rebelled or the mind?

      I ask these questions because in my opinion every runner should take 6 weeks OFF from running after a marathon. Of course no runners ever do this because we are all obsessive as all heck, but so often you see runners wear themselves down because they don't take this kind of "macrocycle" break.

      So, I guess I would chalk up your current apathy/slowness/lethargy to NORMAL macro-fatigue that all runners experience. The river is pooling up. Sure, running too fast after the marathon may have had something to do with it, but I guess I would tend to explain this as a general macro-recovery issue (convenient because it doesn't challenge the thesis of this piece!)

      Hope you are back rolling again, soon -- but don't be afraid to take a couple weeks and NOT be a runner. If you can. :)

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    2. I'll add that once you are rested up and recovered -- I give you a couple more weeks, say mid-February -- you will be able to get back into the faster paces that you were mastering because of your new fitness right after the marathon.

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    3. Thanks for the detailed answer. I did take a full week and a half off of running, and as far as my legs were concerned I felt I recovered faster from CIM than I had from any other prior marathon. The bad weather meant I went much slower than I think I could have gone on a good day. So though I did catch a bad cold immediately afterward, I did feel pretty recovered by the time my coach started throwing easy 30-minuters my way.

      I do think you're right that a big break is good. My spring on the recumbent back last year due my back issue may have contributed to my half-marathon PR last October. Maybe once I BQ I'll be more willing to do that on a regular basis (though NOT on the recumbent bike if I can help it). As it is, now I'm ramping up for Eugene--really want that BQ--no rest for the quest, you know? Hopefully I'm not being too counter-productive.

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    4. Should be "recumbent BIKE." Next week I'll be able to attribute my many typos to being 40. :^)

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    5. After thinking about this a bit, probably 6 weeks OFF from running is too much, but the important point is 6 weeks off from focused training. Easy 30 minute runs are perfect for this phase.

      A general point that I didn't make clear in this piece is that there is a time to roll on easy runs and a time to "hold back" -- what I am talking about in this post is for early season and base training. A recovery period or a racing period requires being more cautious with easy runs...

      But the main point of this post is *listen to your body* -- and if you have a coach, tell your coach what your body (and your motivation levels) feels like.

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  4. i very much appreciate this post. thank you for writing it.

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  5. Thanks for this, Jeff. I had it in mind today. As I hit the end of my run, I started to feel a little backflow from the river. At that moment, I just sort of let myself slow down and bring the run to a close.

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  6. Great post!

    I never really thought much about my easy runs... until I got a coach and started seeing the "recovery run" on the schedule. What the heck is the difference between a recovery run and an easy run, I asked? Turns out, I was running my easy runs at more of a recovery run pace. Before that I never realized I could run easy runs too easy. And, I think knowing that now and fixing that is making a huge difference in my running.

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    1. Exactly! That's a really important distinction that I think takes a while to grasp. You've got a pretty good coach, though... ha ha.

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  7. Yes, thanks Jeff - great post. The 'running them too easy' bit made me think too... that the movement can feel awkward if running to a set 'easy' pace or HR that happens to be slower than one's metaphorical river. Cyclists have got it easy!

    Now I'm wanting a similar metaphor for the interval session or hard run. One where we run by feel and don't try and hit particular splits and paces.

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    1. Whew -- this is a bit tougher I think because there are so many different things that you are trying to do with interval work. Something to chew on for sure!

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  8. I just read your post - This has been my goal since starting training this year. I happen to use the term - Keeping the pace honest. What I am really saying is "Not letting the effort get lazy and too slow"

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  9. Is there a rule of thumb for running easy? For example, should you be able to carry out a conversation?

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    1. I hesitate to give one because some days your legs are going to feel like crap and so obviously easy will be super-conversational. I think there are times when "easy" strays from conversational to something a little faster... but usually this happens when I'm by myself! When running with others, best to keep it conversational because that's more fun, ha ha.

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  10. Thanks for the Easy Rider pic ... what a great visualization aid for the true easy run that turns out fast. (I've been waiting for one to happen again ever since I read the post, but I think it needs to warm up a bit first)

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  11. I've been struggling with the definition of an easy run this post has cleared that up. Makes perfect sense now thanks

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