Take It Easy: The Benefit of Backing Off
“To be a wise runner, you must learn that if the previous training session was hard, regardless of what your mind tells you or what you imagine your competitors might be doing in training, you must allow your body to recover so that it can restock its energy stores and repair the microdamage caused by the previous day’s heavy training. Hard training when the body is not fully recovered simply compounds damage already done.”
-Tim Noakes, professor, MD, and author of Lore of Running
According to 1,134 runners who answered an informal survey shared over social media between July 15 and July 22, 2018*, runners generally look forward to easy runs and recovery days, don’t feel guilty about the thought of relaxing during these outings, and understand that easy runs and recovery days enhance performance. However, when it comes time to implement, more often than not, we miss the mark.
Easy runs, a focal point of this casual study, build, maintain, and maximize aerobic fitness. Though the pace should be steady, we should still be able to hold a relaxed conversation and maintain a heart rate between 65% and 78% of maximum. Typically, most runs within a given week should fall into this category.
“There are several benefits, and the first is that you build up a certain degree of resistance to injury by taking it easy in many of your runs,” says coach and PhD Jack Daniels in his book Daniels’ Running Formula. “During easy running, your heart is delivering a good amount of blood and oxygen to the exercising muscles. These muscles respond by making changes in the muscle fibers that allow the muscles to accept more oxygen and convert more fuel into energy in a given period. Fairly easy running is a good developer of the heart muscle, and although it doesn’t feel as if you are working very hard, your heart is.”
The survey also asked about recovery days. The duration, intensity, and structure of a recovery day will vary according to the runner’s experience, preferences, training schedule, and individual response to tough workouts. The body does an amazing job of healing itself, but musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems will only adapt and grow stronger if they receive the proper recovery between tough workouts and races. Recovery can be achieved by doing nothing more than performing daily tasks, using passive methods like massage or sauna, or by more active methods like, but not limited to, biking, hiking, swimming, yoga, and strength work. Recovery runs can also assist with the recuperation process between tough efforts. These are purposely short in duration, kept at a very slow pace and low effort. These ‘jogs’ are a form of active recovery where your heart rate should be kept below 65% of maximum.
“Recovery runs are very similar to normal distance runs, except the pace is slower and the duration is typically shorter,” says Steve Magness, head cross-country coach at the University of Houston and lecturer of strength and conditioning at St. Mary’s University in England, in his book The Science of Running. “A recovery run helps the body return to homeostasis, and prepares the body for the subsequent work to be done the following day. Often overlooked, recovery runs work to enhance the supercompensation (the body’s response and adaptation to an exercise stimuli) effort.”
Now that we’ve established that easy runs and recovery days require the least amount of effort on the athlete’s part and are a recognized pillar of the training process, they should be fairly simple to execute. Yet, the majority of runners, who ought to know better, reported that they fail in their training by running easy runs too fast or too hard and/or by not incorporating enough recovery.
As a coach and social-media user, I’ve been interested in the paces, distances, and efforts runners record on what they call “easy” or “recovery” days. As well (and this could be due to the magnifying effect of social media and growth in the sport), there seems to be a growing amount of injuries, overtraining, and burnout, especially within the ultrarunning community, at all levels. With your help, this is what the survey revealed:
- 97% (1,101/1,133) believe that easy runs and recovery days improve performance.
- 81% (918/1,134) do not feel guilty about taking an easy or recovery day.
- Of the 19% (216/1,134) that feel guilty, 85% (181) admit to running their easy runs too hard/fast.
- 84% (948/1,134) look forward to their easy run and recovery days.
- Of these who happily anticipate their easy and recovery days, 15% (143) still feel guilty when taking a less intense day.
- 80% (894/1,112) consciously decide about the effort they’ll expend before beginning a run.
- Of this pre-planning 80%, 67% (598) make mid-run alterations in effort (harder or easier) based on how they feel on a given day.
- 78% (880/1,134) sometimes find themselves working harder than they should during an easy run.
- 68% (774/1,132) share their run data socially (for example, Strava or Garmin Connect).
- Of this socially-active group, 79% (611) find themselves pushing hard during easy runs.
- 53% (606/1,132) work with a coach or follow some sort of training plan. 86% (513) of these athletes have a purpose laid out before starting their runs. 63% (377) follow specific easy-run guidelines (like heart rate, pace, perceived effort, and/or choice of training partners) to ensure they stay within the parameters of their specific program. However, 78% (472) of coached athletes following a training plan still run their easy runs too hard/fast.
- 78% (883/1,124) take between one and three days easy and/or as a recovery day per week.
- For the entire responding group as a whole, no matter the guidelines used to keep an easy run relaxed (heart rate, pace, perceived effort, and/or training partners), resulting easy-run efforts can still end up higher than they should.
- Recovery days are taken most often after tough workouts, long runs, races, when fatigue sets in, or when injury niggles appear. Life’s stresses were least likely to keep the survey participants from lacing up their shoes.
How to Take It Easy
Here are a few suggestions and observations to keep your pace and head in check the next time you head out for an easy run or are contemplating a recovery day.
- Long runs aren’t easy. In his book Training for Ultrarunning, Andy Milroy states, “One important thing to remember is that your long run should be considered as a hard day, not an easy day, even though the run is tackled at an easy pace.” Distance is a relative concept and varies for each individual, however, an easy run is no longer easy when muscle vigor and glycogen storage are tested and extra recovery time is required.
- Social fitness platforms may encourage harder efforts. “I do think with social media and tracking websites it feels weird/bad to take easy/recovery days,” said a survey respondent. “Everyone is always trying to hit PRs and course records and even Strava will tell you if a run is trending slower because of an easy run.”
- Running with others can be a mixed blessing. “I’d say it’s much harder to recover or take it easy when you’re running with a group,” said one runner. “Someone always wants to push the pace. Recovery should be done alone or clearly stated with your running friends.” However, another respondent countered with, “I really struggle with running slowly on my own. I enjoy running with company, so solo runs always tend to be hard because I get bored and want them over with.”
- Hard evidence and research proves that easy runs and recovery days improve health and performance. Though most runners already know this, keep yourself up-to-date by immersing yourself in reputable reading material and podcasts. At least four respondents referenced books that improved their running, like Matt Fitzgerald’s book, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Running Slower. Others mentioned their “coaches” came in the form of magazines, like Ultrarunning, and podcasts.
- Though they performed poorly for effort control according to this survey, consider using a heart-rate monitor or pace calculator to keep you running true. “An easy day requires a maximum effort of no more than 70% of heart rate. A recovery day requires holding back to a maximum of 60% effort, which is deliberately relaxed,” said an athlete in the survey.
- Working with a coach (also not a proven way to control effort according to this survey) can hold you accountable and structure your recovery appropriately. “Having a coach gives me confidence that my training plan will work,” said another respondent. “So I approach easy runs and recovery days without any worry that they’ll harm my conditioning; in fact, I trust they will boost it.”
No two runners respond the same way to the same training stimuli. Our ability to recover depends on genetics, age, lifestyle (including diet and sleep), environment, training history, and training structure. But, for all runners, relaxed training has its place. “There’s no shame in running slow,” says coach Brad Hudson, who coached athletes in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games. “Running slow allows you to run longer, and it also enables you to run harder when you want to run hard.” We all get what we want by taking it easy.
*The survey can be viewed in its entirety and the comment function is live. Feel free to add your constructive observations. However, understand that the conclusions rendered above are observational (no statistically significant tests were performed) and based on a small sample size and the author’s assumptions of the responding population. Check out the full survey results.
Daniels, Jack. Daniel’s Running Formula. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2014. Print.
Hudson, B. & Fitzgerald, M. Run Faster. New York: Broadway Books, 2008. Print.
Magness, Steve. The Science of Running. Stephen Magness, 2014. Print.
Milroy, Andy. Training for Ultrarunning. Great Britain: DB Publishing, 2013. Print.
Noakes, Tim. Lore of Running. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2003. Print.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Did you participate in Ian Torrence’s survey? If so, would you care to share how you answered a few of the questions?
- How well do you recover on your recovery days or run easy on your easy days? Do you stick to your plan well or find yourself deviating and working too hard? If the latter, why do you think that is?