Why so slow? The magic of the easy run

Easy running will make you a better athlete!

Easy, not Slow!

We are often asked why our programmes include so much running which is well, so… terribly… inescapably …. slow. Well firstly, let’s reframe that. We ask you to run easy, not slow; easy running is relatively slow, but not all slow running is easy (hill reps anyone?)! BUT, easy running is where the rewards are!

Sadly, the fitness industry has conditioned many of us to believe that running or exercising harder is better than working at low intensity.  The reality is, as many great coaches will tell you, that most amateur athletes run their hard days too easy and their easy days too hard. And this is where the easy run comes in to ultra training. It’s key to your success.

There are two kinds of easy run in most training plans, there certainly are in our programmes. There’s the long easy run, and the easy recovery run.  Both should be run with the same mindset and approach, and offer similar benefits overall, though for slightly different reasons.

So here’s some theory around the easy runs…

First things first, any training plan or training approach will – or should! – take you from least specific to most specific training over the course of the programme. Most of the work (in terms of training load on the body) at the start of a generic  ultra training plan is in running interval sessions – this will increase your VO2 max, and in time build your Lactate Threshold. There is less focus on the endurance element at the beginning of a programme but you will do more of this as time progresses.

As a result, long easy runs of very manageable distances at the start of a training plan are a good idea. It is essentially a race pace run, and you need to start settling into that effort early. However, training progression will mean that a slow 20km at the outset of a programme will over time become more predominant in the training week in terms of load on your body (and of course longer!).

The difference between Easy and Recovery runs

Recovery runs are just that. Light, easy and controlled. These follow your hard runs and are there to help the body recover. They are run easy so that you don’t stress the body further but, by allowing the blood to flow and your body to ‘shake itself out’ give your muscles and soft tissues chance to recover. If your recovery run follows a particularly hard session your pace is likely to be slower than that of your easy runs. But the effort, and the mindset, should be similar. Without diving down a rabbit hole, the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) for both should be the same (if you must dive down that particular hole right now here’s a good summary article).

Easy long runs are all about aerobic conditioning. They are at the heart of a good ultra training programme, slowly allowing your body to adapt to more and more distance. Easy long runs should be at a pace where you could hold a conversation. And don’t fall into the trap of equating easy with slow; they are different mindsets and we regularly see those that think of running slow changing their form (most noticeable is a significant drop in cadence) which can lead to physical issues down the line. So when running easy (or recovery) ensure you keep your form, your cadence will drop a little but you should feel (and look) like you are still running well.

The benefits of easy long runs

The easy long running sessions are categorised as an endurance run. It’s usually (in ultra training, and for the non elite) at a “forever run pace” that you can sustain for your event.  The endurance training stimulus prompts the following benefits:

  • increase mitochondrial density (by up to 40%) without putting too much stress on the body. Kenyan world class athletes rack up mile after mile after mile at 8/9 mins per mile when they can run marathons at 5mins per mile. See this article by our fellow UESCA certified coach Ashley Mateo for a great description of why mitochondria are important.
  • increase capillary density (getting more blood to your muscles) without putting too much stress on the body
  • increase in heart stroke volume without putting too much stress on the body
  • decrease in heart stroke rate without putting too much stress on the body
  • the sessions also allow for beginning to practice fuelling and build confidence. Imagine doing a hard 20 mile run, and thinking on completion “how am I going to manage another 20 miles of this?”. It is much better running it easy (not slow), and finishing thinking “yeah, I’ve still got a bit in the tank, I can do this ultra”.

In summary, the easy runs are a large part of Ultra training. They are used to help your body recover and adapt, and to help your mind get you used to the pace at which you should approach your event.  They also allow you to practice administering yourself on the move. Crucially, they provide many of the physiological adaptations you would associate with harder sessions without wearing yourself out and risking injury or burnout. However, this article on the 80/20 rule sums it all up rather neatly.


Our holistic training programmes or our bespoke coaching will increase your chances of success

Our ultramarathon training packages are more than just plans; we will prepare you physically, but we’ll also prepare you mentally for the challenge ahead, and help you make the right decisions about your kit. Whether it’s a plan for a trail marathon you need, a 50km ultramarathon, or full bespoke personal coaching, you’ll follow a structured plan that covers mind, body and kit aspects of preparation every week.

The programmes are broken down into 4 week blocks, with each block focused on a specific aspect of your training. Each block includes details on preparing physically and mentally, as well as ensuring your equipment is ready and won’t let you down on the day. Using our own experience, knowledge (and quite a collection of personal ‘lessons’ such as those above) we will help you fully prepare. With our guidance you will avoid some of the pitfalls, mistakes and pain we have suffered on our own Ultramarathon journeys.

When you purchase one of our ultramarathon training programmes, we will give you access to our members only Strava Club and Whatsapp group so you can talk to, be encouraged by, motivated and helped by other runners. It’s a club after all, and seeing other runners working towards their goals, sharing their highs and lows, and ultimately becoming your tribe and support network, will hugely increase your chance of success.

Our programmes can be found here.

If you don’t see what you need in our standard plans, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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