You’re pumping your arms hard as you can as you dig deep in that final lap of your interval workout around the track, aiming to reach that new level of fitness as your goal race nears on the calendar. Train hard, then train harder is your motto. But what if you keep coming up short, or even yet: what if you could be achieving more than you ever thought possible? Could, perhaps, the missing piece in the puzzle be your recovery, or more specifically your easy runs—or lack thereof?
Most of the time when striving to reach a new level of fitness we’re focused on the hard sessions of the week: tempos, fartleks, long runs, and interval workouts, but what’s between these sessions is just as important. The easy run connects the dots, aids recovery and should be treated as a vital supplement to your key workout sessions. If you don’t take this recovery run seriously, you’re opening the door to injury, overtraining, and just not being able to get the most out of your workout days — and that is the goal, right? — to recover as much as possible between hard sessions so that we are able to capitalize on those days. So, what gives? Why do we have trouble treating these easy, recovery days with respect?
In this era of endless gadgets and gizmos, it’s so easy to become tied up with the digital feedback we have strapped on our bodies. We might think, “Well, X:XX should be an easy pace,” and then go out and aim to hit the appropriate splits. In reality, listening to our body that day is the simplest way to take it easy. The easy effort is certainly variable, some days we may need to run at a snail’s pace to ensure we are recovering appropriately while other days we can easily stride at a faster clip — whatever the case, it’s more about listening to how your body is feeling than the pace itself.
How can we ensure we stick to this? I recommend using a metric of distance or time, but not both together. For example, on my easy days I usually run a certain distance. I don’t care how long it takes, pace is completely irrelevant on my easy days. Sometimes I run a measured route that I know and in these cases I will run watch-less (I know, a travesty in the Strava community)! Other times, if I feel like exploring, I will wear my GPS watch, but will only use it to measure the distance. I know a lot of folks like to post the majority of runs on Strava—and you can keep doing that—but I urge you to care less about pace on those recovery runs and when it comes to segment hunting, maybe save those for the “workout days.”
Will you notice a change as you place more emphasis on these key recovery days? I think so! As you become more consistent with keeping your recovery runs as truly “listen to my body” days, I guarantee you will be able to reach another performance level on the days that count. It continues to snowball from there: as you are able to work harder in your key sessions, you will undoubtedly require those essential recovery run days even more, setting you up to access some new levels of fitness.
Fitting easy runs into the week can depend on what you are training for. Some like to have a hard session every other day with recovery days in between. For myself, since I am often training for a longer distance race like a marathon or half marathon, it’s not uncommon for me to have 2-3 recovery days after a long run workout session. Whatever the case, the majority of your week, whether you are training for a 5K or a marathon, should be recovery runs. Here is a glimpse of one of my marathon weeks in which I totalled 172K — easy running took up 68% (117 km) of the week while hard running took up only 32% (55 km). I like the saying “train hard, recover harder,” and this breakdown of work certainly echoes that.
Easy runs are just one facet of the recovery process. I will always shout from the rooftops that sleep is king and nutrition is surely an essential component as well. None of these are to be overlooked when you are trying to stay healthy and get the most out of your fitness goals. So perhaps it’s time to pay attention to this often-overlooked component and keep it easy on those easy days—the effects might surprise you.