Easy running is a critical but often overlooked part of becoming a stronger, faster runner. And, to be fair it isn’t hard to understand why. It doesn’t make a lot of logical sense that running SLOWER allows us to eventually become FASTER at running. Practice usually makes perfect, right? So, shouldn’t we practice running fast if we want to get better at running fast?
Contrary to what you might assume, spending more time running slowly actually contributes to more speed come race day. In fact, spending 80% of your time running at your easiest pace is what is recommended to get the right mix of easy vs hard days to get the most out of your training. This means that only 20% of your weekly miles are run at faster speeds. An 80/20 split improves aerobic fitness (keep reading to learn what that is!). It also helps prevent injuries and overtraining.
New runners in particular can benefit greatly from spending some time building up their endurance with easy running. If you’re struggling to make it more than a few miles (or a few minutes!), this article is definitely for you!
Here are 5 reasons why doing more easy running will actually make you a better, faster runner.
1. Running slower helps build your body’s aerobic base.
What is your aerobic base? Well, it is essentially your body’s engine. Having a strong aerobic base is what makes us able to run for longer periods of time. It increases our running efficiency, running economy, and fitness level.
Easy running and building our aerobic base is what sets us up to be able to run for longer at faster paces. Imagine the power output of a big ol’ V8 car engine vs something like a riding lawnmower. We know that the car’s top speed and power output potential is far more than our little lawnmower could hope to have. When it comes to our ‘engine’, or aerobic base, having more power capacity allows us to run at faster speeds for longer. But, we have to build the engine first before we can take it out for a test-drive!
Now, V8 engines aren’t particularly environmentally friendly, but when it comes to your running performance, a bigger engine is a good thing!
2. Slower paces increase mitochondrial and capillary density
Yes, these are good things! Mitochondria are the ‘power plants’ contained within our body’s cells. They are responsible for generating the energy our cells need to function. They create something called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is how our bodies turn the food energy we eat into a form we can use. In terms of running, more power plants means more potential power output when we’re on the move!
Easy running also increases our body’s capillary density within our muscle cells. Capillaries are the teeniest of blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to each individual cell. This means we can get more oxygen and fuel to our muscle cells more quickly, which is necessary if we want to perform at faster speeds.
What this all means, is that when we are running at faster speeds (say, on race day!), the faster paces are easier to maintain. We become able to easily run faster for longer, which is great news if you want to start crushing those PRs!
3. Helps your body use more fat as a fuel
Wouldn’t it be great if instead of hitting the wall on a long run, you could more easily access your body’s fat stores and use THOSE as energy to fuel your running?
Well, by increasing your aerobic base and doing more easy running, you can!
Easy running allows our body to adapt to using more fat as fuel as we train. Even runners who are quite lean still have thousands of calories in body fat available to them as a fuel source. But, if we’re running all of our miles too fat (into our anaerobic zone), we have no choice but to use carbohydrate to fuel those miles. This means that in order to run longer distances we need to bring more fuel with us (like gels, beans, or chews). We aren’t as able to tap into the huge energy reserve we’re carrying right along with us.
Now, the reality still remains that at faster speeds we rely more on carbohydrate as fuel vs fat. So you’ll never completely negate the need for carbohydrates as a runner. Additionally, it’s not that our running becomes completely fueled by fat, it’s just a larger proportion that it would be in a less-trained runner.
However, when it comes to race-day performance the benefit is this: By using more fat as fuel throughout the race, you’re sparing glycogen (the carbohydrate stored in our muscles). This means that if you want to pick up speed and finish strong you’ve got enough glycogen left. The gas tank isn’t empty yet!
4. Helps prevent injuries and overtraining
Easy running is key to avoid injuries and overtraining. The easy miles are much less stressful on your body and joints, which means you can be more consistent with your training long-term. Keeping more miles easy means you can increase your total weekly mileage more comfortably. If all your miles are at your fastest possible pace, you’re on a fast-track to burnout when you try to ramp things up. Doing all fast miles also puts unnecessary stress on your joints. Without any easy running between hard workouts, this increases your risk of injury.
Slower miles allow you to build up endurance and get your body used to a higher volume of training. In turn you can be more consistent with your training and avoid annoying injuries.
5. Builds confidence in your ability to run for longer!
Let me tell you a story about Miranda. She was a client of mine recently, a new-ish runner who was feeling really frustrated that she couldn’t run more than two miles. No matter how many days per week she ran, she’d get two miles in and just couldn’t keep the pace any longer.
Well, it turns out she was trying to run WAY too fast!
Rather than stick in her ‘easy zone’, Miranda was trying to run as fast as she could, thinking that she’d be able to cover more ground before she got tired. Unfortunately that wasn’t working! She couldn’t break through two miles, no matter how fast she went.
Instead, Miranda needed to slow down and be patient so she could eventually speed up and complete her races faster!
Slowing down your pace and keeping your heart rate lower can reduce your discomfort and make it easier to tackle longer distances. When our heart rate is through the roof, we’re moving from our aerobic zone into anaerobic. Anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’, and means that our demand for oxygen is higher than what we can breathe in. We can maintain these speeds for only short periods of time. It doesn’t take long before we’re forced to slow down so we can get more oxygen in.
Mentally, this also makes running more enjoyable. When our heart rate is lower, we feel more comfortable, and can maintain a pace for a much longer period of time. This makes those long runs feel far less scary!
Try slowing down during your runs and you’ll be surprised at how much you can actually LIKE running!
So, the next question you probably have is: How do I even FIND my easy pace?
How to find your easy running pace:
Your easy running pace is somewhere between 60% and 75% of your estimated maximum heart rate (Max HR). To calculate your maximum heart rate, the easiest way is to take 220 and subtract your age.
So, if you’re 35 years old, 220 – 35 = 185 beats per minute.
(there are some other more complicated equations out there, but the difference you get is so minor it’s not really worth the extra effort!)
So, if our estimated max heart rate is 185bpm, then 60-75% of that is 111-139bpm. (let’s call it 110-140bpm just to simplify!)
What this means is that the majority of the miles you run each week should be within this ‘easy’ zone. You can use the 80/20 rule of running to plan your weekly runs! Complete 80% of your weekly miles at your easy pace, and 20% as your ‘speed’ training.
Now, what if you’re very new to running and no matter how slow you go your heart rate is going over 75% of your max?
Incorporate walk/run intervals! Run at the slowest pace you can for as long as you’re able. You can either time this (say 1 minute on, 1 minute off), or go by feel. Run until your heart rate is getting close to that 75% threshold, then walk for as long as you need to feel recovered.
A few tips for your walk/run intervals
Remember, these aren’t sprint/walk intervals! Keep your running pace slow, even though you’re stopping for walk breaks
You might feel silly running so slowly, but don’t feel pressured to speed up. Building your aerobic base is SO worth it in the long run!
Working on increasing the time you can spend running between walk breaks, not the speed that you’re running at!
The bottom line
Easy running is a key part of becoming a faster runner. Contrary to what we assume, slowing down is truly the best way to speed up and start crushing our race PRs.
Easy running creates adaptations in our body that eventually makes it much easier to run faster for longer periods of time. We become more efficient, can more readily access fat as a fuel source, and feel more comfortable running for a long time.
If you’ve been struggling to improve your race times, try slowing down so you can speed up!
Do you need a personalized nutrition and training program to help build your confidence and speed as a runner? Click here to learn more about my Fuel Train Recover program!