Some Benefits of Easy Runs

I see Andy regularly at parkrun. He managed a PB of close to 23-mins a couple of years ago and wants to get back there. A few weeks ago I did a recovery parkrun and he finished just behind me at twenty-five minutes but was lying on the floor gasping for breath from the effort he’d put in.

He entered a half marathon in mid-October and achieved a creditable 1hr55 despite a lack of longer distance training. The following week after parkrun, as we talked about how well he’d done, I suggested that, rather than let this fitness go to waste, he should try to get out for an hour’s run each week. That way when he decides to do his next event, he doesn’t have to build up from a base of only 5K.

A few days later he pinged me a message saying he’d taken my advice and done a 10K in about fifty-five minutes. He’d run it at a pace not much slower than his half marathon and I suggested slowing it down further and enjoying the scenery. The following week he did this, slowing it by 30-secs per mile which means the run is only 3-4 mins slower overall but feels much less exertional.

He ran it again the next two weeks and then something weird happened … three days later he did the 10K again – a second time that week. The easy running was clearly having an effect. When I saw him at parkrun he nodded as I mentioned it and then ran his parkrun as fast as he could. His time a little over 24-minutes was an improvement on the last one.

What I want to draw out of this are the benefits he’s getting from easy running.

First and foremost, he’s getting fitter. His parkrun time has got 30+ seconds quicker in a matter of weeks. And postrun he wasn’t rolling around on the floor gasping for breath this time.

Secondly, the easy 10K runs leave him arriving home feeling good but not exhausted. They set him up for the day rather than tearing him down.

In turn that is leading him to feel more motivated. He’s enjoying the easy runs so much that he’s happy to do more than one 10K in a week! It wasn’t what I set out to get him to do but all credit to him for doing the extra.

Finally, the easy runs are giving his body more time to recover from the harder efforts. When he only ran fast his body never had time to recover. Every subsequent effort became more stressful until he took days off. Invariably he was never in peak form at parkrun because his fast-twitch muscles were always recovering. Now when he arrives at parkrun they’re rested and ready for a harder run if he wants it.

These aren’t the only benefits to easy running but they are some of the most easily noticeable.

Short Sprint – Three max

Simple rule: never run hard more than three times per week. Use the rest of the week for easy running and do it often to offset the effects of the hard runs. You might be able to do a fourth hard run once in a while, or if you’re still young and full of growth hormones and getting quick recovery, but as a rule, three is the maximum.

But what do I mean by “running hard”? Obviously if you go to parkrun or a race, that’s running hard. If you do an interval or speedwork session, that’s running hard. If you do some kind of tempo or marathon pace workout that’s running hard. Anything that gets you breathing hard or sweating counts as running hard. Introducing a new type of session, e.g. a long run, counts as running hard because your body isn’t accustomed to the work involved. It’ll need time to recover from that.

When Paula Radclifffe was at the peak of her marathon training she worked to a nine day cycle with one workout every three days. It’s the workouts that get you faster but you need the recovery days to allow the body to rebuild. Slot in too many hard sessions in place of easy runs and you’re making it hard for the body to adapt.

Often though, what runners think of as easy sessions actually count as ‘running hard’. If you arrive home sweating, or your breathing is raised, or don’t feel like you could do it again, then it’s probable you’ve been running hard. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and run what feels like ‘too easy’. Generally the only runners who undertrain are those who don’t train regularly.

So that’s my simple rule – maximum of three workouts each week with the rest of the week spent recovering and building a base. By all means don’t even do three each week, Paula didn’t. I’ve seen myself and other runners make decent progress off just one hard run per week. But start to understand that a hard session is anything that’s more than “too easy” and start limiting yourself.