How to know if you are really running ‘easy.'

The runners I coach are more likely to see the words ‘easy,' 'medium' and ‘hard’ in their training plans than to see specific paces.  These are the three main efforts or intensities that I use in my coaching, as well as 'Race Effort'.   Of course there is a place for more paces, efforts and measurements, but in a world where we are inundated with so much information and so many metrics (that we don’t understand!), I prefer to keep things simple.

I like to think of these efforts as similar to the gears in a car.  'Easy' means you are going pretty slow in 1st or 2nd gear, ‘medium' is cruising along in 3rd or 4th gear and then ‘hard' is when you are going much faster, in the top gears.

People often struggle to grasp the simplicity of this, but in my experience it all hinges on the interpretation of the word ‘easy.’  Everything else stems from there.  If we run too hard on our easy runs, then we leave no energy or room to increase effort when we hit the harder running.

There is a stack of evidence to show that if we run genuinely easy, we avoid injury, burn more fat, recover better, improve our aerobic fitness and are more likely to avoid over-training. Despite the evidence, coaches and physios are often left to pick up the injured pieces of runners who refuse to run easy. Instead choosing to go too fast, too far, too soon, too often.

I must admit that this concept of going easy and slowing down in order to improve my fitness seemed foreign to me at first, but I can safely say it has been one of the most important learnings of my own training and that of my runners. I now see several of my runners recognising when they are pushing too hard and developing the confidence to slow down when needed.

Much of this depends on our ego.  Getting passed by ’slower’ runners as you do your local parkrun can dent your ego at first, particularly if you are a middle aged male like me.  However the benefits do not take long to materialise.  By running easy, we are able to run more consistently over a longer period of time and as any coach will tell you, THAT is what truly makes the difference.  Consistency over time.  By running easy, we are prioritising injury prevention, aerobic fitness and training consistency above everything else.

So how can you measure ‘easy running?’

Here are my two preferred options:

  • Your Breathing

Again, there is no need to make things too complicated.  I like to ask people to use their breathing as a guide, rather than a specific pace or speed.  This means you can run without a watch or phone and know that you are completing the session properly.  As you are running, ask yourself the following questions...

  • Are you in control of your breathing or is your breathing in control of you?

  • Do you feel calm and in control?

  • Can you speak in full phrases whilst you are running?

If you are in control and can speak freely, then you are highly likely to be running easy.

TOP TIP: Count your breaths in line with your steps as you run.  Are you nice and relaxed, breathing in for 4 steps, then out for 4 steps?  Or are you really puffing and breathing in for 1 step, out for 1 step?  That way you can create a scale and measure where your breathing is at as you run.

  • Your Heart Rate

If the breathing method isn’t to your taste, then I would recommend using heart rate as a guide.  Many watches are starting to have heart rate sensors on the wrist, but the chest straps are still more accurate at this stage.  Either way, your heart rate number is a result of the effort you are putting in, so if you put in less effort, your heart rate should drop.  With heart rate training, there are several methodologies, but most agree that ‘easy running’ should be firmly in the lower intensity, aerobic zones.  The argument from experts like Dr Phil Maffetone is that lower intensity training changes the structures of the body over a long period of time so endurance athletes will see increased efficiency, lower injury rates, higher fat burning efficiency and ultimately better results.

TOP TIP: Set up your watch properly with the correct heart rate zones, rather than relying on the factory settings to do it for you, then keep an eye on it as you run.  Ideally you will do this for a little while and then learn what each level of effort feels like, so you don’t need to be so reliant on the watch.

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