Fifty Shades of Easy

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Photo credit: Easy on the I’s (eyes) from Flickr user Derek Jensen, used under a Creative Commons license.

So you’ve set your goal, built your training plan, used a recent race performance and a tool like Daniels VDOT or McMillan’s Running Calculator to define your paces for key workouts like tempos, pace runs, and all manners of intervals.  But then you see that a bulk of your mileage is defined as “easy”.  And the calculators give you this pace that looks like something you could run backwards with your eyes closed.  Being the metrics-driven runner than you are, you want to do everything just right, but are you really expected to log that many miles at that exact pace?  And why is there such a “no-man’s land” between marathon pace and easy?

First off, one needs to recognize that an easy run shouldn’t really be much about pace at all.  The focus should be on putting in the appropriate level of effort, and, where possible, learning to do so by feel.  Maybe you learn to gauge your breathing rate, in much the same way you can for harder workouts, to know how easy you are running.  Or you can come to rely on monitoring your heart rate to dictate your easy effort (something I don’t really subscribe much too, and which I won’t really discuss here).

In fact, for such runs, pace should become an output variable, not something you actively seek to control.  These are great runs to run for a general period of time, while leaving your watch at home or set to time-of-day, to help build your feedback systems on the effort versus pace relationship, to get a sense of your breathing rate and cadence during such runs as a proxy for pace.

Regardless of your approach, you need to respect the goal of the easy run, which is to build your aerobic fitness while either allowing recovery or saving your “capabilities” for your harder workouts.  As such, this still provides you a lot of leeway in how to approach easy runs.  And it’s good to take advantage of this leeway, as getting into a pace rut, where most of your runs are the same pace, fails to stimulate your aerobic and muscular development as fully as possible, while still working within the confines of the “easy range”.  Here are three of many types of “easy” runs to intentionally include in your repertoire.

Steady-State (Lydiard)

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements of Lydiard-based training is the idea of “long slow distance”.  In fact, Lydiard advocated running many of your base-building runs at a steady-state pace – one that leaves you feeling like you put in a solid effort but still have a little bit left “in the tank”.

  • Breathing pattern:  This can range from 3:3 (i.e., 3 steps for each breath in, 3 steps for each breath out) to 4:4, and should linger a bit more towards the former.
  • Cadence:  This is the type of run in which to focus on getting your cadence up to the recommended 180 per minute range by focusing on keeping your strides short and turnover light and quick.
  • Pace: Generally, this run will yield a pace that’s 5-10% slower than your marathon pace (10 to 40 seconds, in my case)
  • When to use:  This “easy” pace is ideal for mid-distance “general aerobic” runs (in the range of 7 to 11 miles) or the closing 50-75% of your long runs.


It was tough to come up with a name for this “easy” effort, which falls between the “focused” steady-state run and the necessity-driven anticipation (recovery) run.  But the goal here is to care less about your pace and truly run how you feel, appreciating the “time on your feet” element of the run.

  • Breathing pattern:  This should fall in the 4:4 range pretty consistently.
  • Cadence:  It’s helpful to pay occasional attention to your stride rate during such a run, mostly to be sure it doesn’t fall below a 170 bpm range.
  • Pace: Using the above two constraints, you’ll often find this run giving you a pace that’s 8-15% slower than your marathon pace.  Again, pace is an output, not something you actively seek to control.
  • When to use:  This is an ideal place to be for the warm-up to your tempo or interval workout, the early miles of your long run (especially if the later miles are at marathon pace), or even medium-long “time on your feet” runs of the 12-15 mile variety, where you are out to run for 1.5 – 2.5 hours, depending on your pace.

Anticipation (Recovery)

The anticipation run (or, as others still insist on calling it, the “recovery run”) is the one type of run that best fits the “easy” pace goals given by the online calculators.  This is the run where you really just listen to what your body is capable of – and then dial it back another notch.  The goal is to prepare for your next hard go while still getting in some aerobic work.

  • Breathing pattern:  This should fall in the 4:4 or even slower – this is definitely a conversational pace, and you should be doing most of the talking.
  • Cadence:  Cadence is an afterthought for this type of run, though one should take a little bit of care to maintain good form and avoid picking up bad habits (or risking injury).
  • Pace: This level of effort should result in a pace that’s 15% or more above your marathon pace.
  • When to use:  It’s usually pretty clear when an anticipation run is needed as they are called out in your schedule – after a long run or hard workout, or in the cool-down of said workout.

There are many other potential easy runs that may find their way into your training routine too, including:

  • The “running with a slower friend” easy run (and hopefully Tim Meier is ready to practice this pace over the next year)
  • The “what did I drink last night” easy run (note – I’ve not really experienced this, but I’ve heard about it)
  • The “forgot to go predawn so now I’m stuck in the heat of day” easy run (also known as the “run of shame”)

So don’t feel beholden to run all of your “easy” runs at a painfully slow pace – frankly, you may not have the time to do so.  Mixing up your easy runs a bit can provide better training, make the bulk of your miles more enjoyable, and better serve the specific needs (aerobic development, recovery, running socially, etc.) that you’ll have during your training cycle.

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  • James Reeves

    Had my own “Run of Shame” yesterday. 97 degrees in the shade. That’ll suck the life out of somebody. Good spin on the idea of “easy”.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks James – fortunately we rarely get that hot up here, but mid 80’s with humidity can be bad enough.