In May, Sally Kipyego, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist
in the 10,000m, sped to a 30:42.26 win at Stanford's Payton
Jordan Invitational–a pace that works out to 4:56
Achieving that pace for 10,000m requires Kipyego to log
plenty of hard track sessions and tempo runs. Yet on her
non-workout days, she ambles along at 8:30-per-mile pace,
sometimes even slower.
"I think most Kenyans do that," Kipyego says
about taking it slow on her easy days. "As long as
I can remember, when I was a junior back in Kenya, the
easy days were really easy. I am kind of old-school in
some ways. You go by feel; you let your body tell you."
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mo Farah, winner
of two gold medals at the same Olympics where Kipyego
took silver. Until last fall, Farah had been averaging
7 minutes per mile for up to 40 percent of his weekly
volume. But as he was preparing for his marathon debut
in London, his coach, Alberto Salazar, instructed him
to speed up his easy-day pacing in order to get more benefit
from all that mileage. Farah now runs much faster; with
training partner Galen Rupp, he works down to 5:30 pace
on easy days.
If the faster pace leaves Farah with heavy legs, Salazar
doesn't sweat it; he told Running Times in March that
the goal of feeling fresh for workouts is overrated. "If
you're always worried about feeling perfect for every
workout," he says, "you may never really get
the conditioning you need."
So who is right, Kipyego or Farah? And more important,
what is right for you?
WHAT EASY RUNS DO
They're all the other miles–not the tempos or track
repeats or long runs. They're the entries in your training
log that make up a large percentage of your weekly mileage
total, but with which you don't bother to record much
data: Simply an "8" or a "6" or a
"park loop" suffice to remind you what you did
The easy day is the Rodney Dangerfield of distance training:
It receives precious little respect. Some hardliners might
even use the term "junk miles" for Kipyego's
easy-day running, despite her international successes.
Why do we do them? Because easy running–even very
slow easy running–provides fundamental adaptations.
On easy days, you're using mostly slow-twitch muscle
fibers. They have a higher density of mitochondria, high
levels of aerobic enzymes and greater capillary density
than fast-twitch fibers, which are more involved in higher-intensity
training, says Dan Bergland, principal sport physiologist
at Volt Sportlab in Flagstaff, Arizona. On easy days,
"You increase mitochondria and capillaries and blood
flow to those muscles, so they're better able to utilize
oxygen," he says. "Without that, you can't do
the intense runs."
All runners, and especially beginners and those coming
back from injury, benefit from the cardiovascular and
muscular-structural development easy running promotes.
The base fitness a runner puts down through a preponderance
of easy runs enables the athlete to safely progress to
other types of training.
Seasoned runners also need easy days in order to maintain
hard-earned aerobic fitness and make continual gains in
running economy. Of course, competitive runners are interested
in moving efficiently at race paces, the primary reason
for training at a variety of intensities, in addition
to running easy. But even slow running allows for modest
gains in efficiency of movement.
More important, it allows for recovery from the hard
days. "A runner should achieve a training effect
every day," says Dennis Barker, coach of Team USA
Minnesota, "and to me, recovery is a training effect,
maybe the most important one. It's during recovery that
adaptations from the hard training take place. If a runner
doesn't recover, the body is not going to adapt, and you'll
either continue digging a hole for yourself or get injured."
YOUR PACE OR MINE?
Jason Ryf keeps a 6-minute easy-day pace.
The question, then, is what pace is right, and what do
you stand to lose if you go too fast or too slow? In a
general sense, an easy run is a low-intensity effort of
a short to moderate duration. So a long run, even completed
at a relaxed pace, should not be considered "easy,"
because, despite the pace, there comes a point where the
duration raises the overall intensity out of the comfort
A dozen years ago, Barker began working with Carrie Tollefson,
a four-time national champion at Villanova. The transition
to working with Barker was initially rocky, because Tollefson
wouldn't back down on her easy runs. "At Nova we
were very low-mileage, but we ran hard all the time,"
Tollefson says. "And then I came to Dennis and we
were trying to hit 85 or 90 miles a week, and I couldn't
do it all. I was always pushing the envelope, but I just
couldn't run a ton plus go really hard in all my workouts,
my easy days and my long runs."
Barker's solution was to mandate that Tollefson wear
a heart rate monitor and keep her easy and long runs within
appropriate ranges. It worked. "Slowly but surely,
running slower helped me," Tollefson says. "By
2004 I was having my best year, and that's when I made
my Olympic team. I just needed to grow into the sport
and know that it was OK to back off on those easy days
and not be so stuck on the watch and always running 6:30
pace. It didn't matter what I ran on my easy days; they
were supposed to be easy."
Though Barker extols the virtues of keeping the pace
relaxed on easy days, that doesn't mean he sends his athletes
out for short jogs. In fact, he's been known to assign
runners hilly routes on non-workout days, to give the
run a little extra benefit. But pacing is almost always
"Pace is the most important thing to keep easy on
an easy day," Barker says. "Many runners can
still recover if they run a few more miles, as long as
it's still at an easy pace. But from my experience, they
can't recover if they run a faster pace, even with fewer
miles. So pace really needs to be governed on easy days,
[but] mileage not quite as much."
Bergland believes runners can't really go too slow on
their easy days, unless their form starts to break down.
At that point, slower becomes counterproductive. In his
opinion, as long as your form holds up, lower intensity
trumps higher intensity for easy days.
While elite athletes have a finely tuned sense of pace
and effort, rank-and-file runners often struggle with
it. Bergland advises runners to use 10K race pace plus
2 minutes for easy-day pace, wear heart rate monitors
(and aim for 65 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate) or
take occasional treadmill runs to monitor pace.
Elite runners' reported easy paces
Suggested easy pace
Actual easy pace
Marathon PR: 2:08:21
5,000m PR: 15:12
5,000m PR: 14:30
Marathon PR: 2:19:37