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We’ve all heard time and again that we should take our long runs easy, and many of us run easy miles during the week as well. But what constitutes an easy run, and how do you know if your effort is truly easy? Easy mileage is recommended to prevent injury and allow the body to recover from hard efforts, but one of the most common mistakes that runners make is running their easy miles too fast to truly allow the body to benefit from them.
Experts recommend that easy-paced runs should make up about seventy percent of our total mileage. While many of us are calculating our easy run pace based on races, it can be surprising to discover that these paces aren’t always accurate. Consider, for example, how a 10 minute per mile pace might feel on a 40-degree day versus on a 100 degree day. There is a significant difference in exertion level, so it doesn’t make sense to rely completely on a pre-determined pace when determining your goal for any given day. Further, our fitness levels, stress levels, and energy levels change over time and even from day to day, so what may feel easy on one day may seem impossibly hard on another. In fact, using a heart rate monitor may be the only way to really know what an “easy” pace is for your body.
I’ve been running for about 6 years, and most of those miles have been run somewhere in the 9:00-10:00 minutes per mile range. It’s the pace I train at and one where I feel comfortable, or so I thought. My pace doesn’t change from summer to winter, and I expect the same results no matter what course I’m running. Imagine my surprise, then, when I hooked myself up to a heart rate monitor for the first time, set off for an “easy” run, and found a heart rate in the 190s glaring back at me! The amazing part (besides the fact that I ran at that heart rate for 6 miles and didn’t collapse) is that it just felt sort of…normal. My body had been so accustomed to running at the wrong level that I didn’t even notice. Figuring that this definitely wasn’t helping my training and recovery, I decided to look into heart rate training and see how it might benefit me.
Suffice to say that the pace I need to be running to keep my heart rate squarely in Zone 2 (about 60-70 percent of my max heart rate) is a whole lot slower than what I though constituted an easy run. While I’m regularly getting passed by pretty much everyone at the moment, I’ve also noticed that I am slowly building up my ability to run faster at a lower effort level. I’m finishing my runs feeling refreshed and glad I went instead of exhausted and depleted. I also don’t dread my summer workouts the way I used to. While I can’t say I’ve got it all figure out just yet, I’m encouraged by the progress my body has made over the past few weeks. I look forward to the day when that 9:00-10:00 minute easy pace is actually easy, and not just by my own definition.