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Is Your Easy…Easy Enough?

Summer is here and that means we are early in the running season. Runners are starting their base period, signing up for that winter marathon, and starting their training. Runners, swimmers, and cyclists can all benefit from some easy training days or sessions. Perhaps you come up with your own plan or you use a plan you found on the internet. Likely, you will see the word “Easy” preceding or following your prescribed distance. Example: Run 5 miles, Easy. (If the plan you have does not have any guidance and just says run 5 miles, assume they are meant to be Easy miles or throw that plan away. Your training has to have easy/hard days defined). Short rant over. So, what does easy mean? What does easy mean to you? Is there anyway to actual measure an “easy” intensity? Why does it even matter?
I will start with why it matters and keep this short.
These easy efforts are meant build your aerobic engine, or ability go far and use fat efficiently, which help you go farther-faster. I explain this in more detail in another post and how it benefits you. You have got to have lots of easy, especially in the early base period of your training cycle, to give yourself the ability to carry those faster paces later on during your races.
The problem with easy is that too many do not know what easy actually is. I was a victim not too long ago. I recently saw a run of mine 3 years ago and was inspired to write this blog. My easy days 3 years ago are faster than my easy days today. Example, the run of mine I saw showed I ran at an 8 minute a mile pace for 6 miles. Today, most of my easy stuff falls within an 8:30-9:30 per mile range. Looking at this, it appears I have lost fitness and am just a slower athlete, now. I’ve messed everything up and have been doing stuff wrong the past 3 years. Or did I? At that point in time, my half marathon PR was a 2:00 flat. That is about a 9:10 per mile average. Today, my most recent half marathon pace was just under a 1:37. 3 years ago, why were the majority of my training runs faster than my race pace? Seem backwards, doesn’t it? Who was I trying to impress in the middle of the week with my training runs? Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever experienced this? Is your race pace frequently at or slower than your training paces? If so, your easy days may not be easy enough.
So, you may be asking,  “how do I know what easy is, then?” Like I mentioned before, easy can be defined as aerobic. There are a few ways to determine if you are in an aerobic state or “easy” effort. Many coaches set up zones to help establish easy/hard. We won’t go into that because every coach is different. Some use 4 zones and some have 7 or more. Below, I will highlight the ways easy efforts can be established.
  • Heart Rate – For this, you need to be able to find your maximum Heart Rate. (Do not do the 220-minus your age method..it’s a guess and chances are it’s wrong) Best way to establish this is to do an actual test. Treadmills or a track are both great tools because they are somewhat controlled. These efforts are hard and can really hurt, if you do it right. Drawback to this, is a newer athlete is not recommended to go find their max HR. It puts them at risk for injury and likely, they will not actually achieve their max HR, simply due to lack of fitness. Once max HR is found, you can do the simple math of finding 80 percent of max. Anything below 80 percent of max Heart Rate is usually “easy or aerobic”. For me as an example, my max is 205. So, anything under 164 is aerobic. Each and every person is different. Your max HR should be specific to you.
  • RPE (Perceived exertion)- This can be put on a scale of 1-10. 1 being super easy, like sitting on a couch. 10 being can’t breath, every fiber in your body burning. Easy here should be defined as about a 4 on this scale of 1-10. An effort level of 4 should be conversational, meaning if you are running with a partner, you can literally have a conversation without stopping and having to “catch your breath” every sentence or two. In the beginning, you may have to really slow down to achieve this. This is great for newer athletes or people that do not have access to a HR monitor. If you find yourself running great and every couple of minutes you need to slow down to catch your breath, you need to slow your overall pace down, in general.
  • Threshold Pace- This is for the more advanced athlete and is based off of the athletes “threshold”. Easy is then defined by HR/pace. I tend to use this more often in the build periods, after a solid base has been established. I wont bore you with the details that go into finding this.
Now, you may have an understanding of how to find easy and I hope you understand how important it is, but how much easy do you need? I agree that there needs to be a good mix of easy/hard. Running “easy” all of the time will be boring and probably won’t give you the results you are wanting to achieve. Having the right amount of harder sessions is key to getting faster. Speed work creates speed and slow work gives you the ability to carry that speed for a longer period of time. Most agree that an 80/20 ratio is ideal, being 80 percent of your weekly volume at an easy effort and 20 percent at a harder effort. I have seen some argue a 75/25 or a 90/10 are better approaches. That is for you or you and your coach to decide what works best for YOU! I also want to add in the stuff you do in the harder sessions needs to be specific to you and your race. This is where you could benefit from having a coach. A good coach will make sure you have the appropriate combination of easy/hard and the most beneficial sessions on those harder days.
So, if you are stuck in a rut, have plateaued, or find yourself missing workouts because you are too tired, you may want make sure your easy stuff is is actually easy. If buying a HR monitor is not a good investment for you right now, go with the RPE scale. Make sure the majority of your training is at “conversational” effort level. Chatting with a friend while running is great and will keep you honest. If you are gasping for air to hold a conversation, slow it down. Take your time and enjoy the ability to be able to run. Slowing it down some may be all that you need to get that next PR.
Like always, reach out if you have any questions or comments.
Coach Tim
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