Not every run has to be fast for you to become a better runner. In fact, the vast benefits of easy running are one of the core reasons as to how the elite get to earn their status. There are even the world’s greatest coaches that believe in most of an athletes training being easy. The 80/20 principle, for example, is built on that foundation.
Even the great Peter Snell, who was Olympic champion over the 800m, was coached by Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard was famous for making his athletes complete regular ‘long slow distance runs’, and it worked for a reason. Throughout this article we’ll cover a few benefits of easy running. Hopefully from this you’ll take more pride in your easy miles, knowing that they’re helping you make progress.
If you want help structuring your training weeks in order to maximise your running fitness, head over to our personalised trianing program page. Here you will get a training plan tailored perfectly to you, written by our head coach – using his training knowledge and experience as a competitive runner. Alternatively, head over to our online coaching page for one on one coaching to help you reach your full potential!
Aerobic Benefit of Easy Running
Sometimes running isn’t about who has the most speed or power – it’s about who has the biggest engine. Your aerobic system (your engine, in this case) makes sure all your working muscles are receiving sufficient supplies of oxygen. When your muscles have enough oxygen, they’ll continue to perform optimally. It’s the strength of your heart that determines the strength of your aerobic system. It’s the heart that pumps the oxygenated blood around your body – without which your muscles would fatigue.
Easy running offers the perfect opportunity to develop your aerobic system. By keeping your heart rate in a sustainable range your heart slowly adapts to become more efficient. The sustainable heart rate range for easy running is 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. It’s a similar principle to tempo running: if you spend enough time completing a specific action, you’ll become more efficient in that action.
If you go higher than the 50-70% of maximum heart rate range then you lose out on the benefits. In this range, your heart cannot pump hard enough to ensure all your working muscles get enough oxygen to continue functioning properly. This deficit doesn’t allow your body to adapt as much as easy running does.
The more time you spend easy running, the more efficient your aerobic system will become. As your aerobic system becomes more efficient, your heart rate lowers. When your heart rate lowers, you need to run at a faster pace to stay within that 50-70% HR range. As you can see from this, easy running actually makes you a faster runner.
The benefits of easy running allow you to push harder in your workouts. Because your heart rate is remaining lower for longer, you can run faster in your workouts without becoming fatigued. If you don’t spend enough time easy running then you wont see these crucial benefits.
Easy running makes you stronger
We’ve already covered that taking it easy makes your heart stronger. However, this isn’t the only strength benefit that easy miles provide. When you’re running slow your stride is short, you’re running tall and it’s easier to focus on the correct foot strike.
If you struggle with running efficiently, your easy runs are the perfect opportunity to combat this. As you spend more time running slow and focusing on efficiency, you strengthen the muscles that allow you to do this. This means that your lower leg muscles become far stronger. The stronger they are, the easier it is for you to remain efficient whilst running faster.
It’s the same principle as developing your aerobic system. Spend more time training your heart in the right way and it’ll become stronger. Well, if you spend more time training your legs in the right way, they’ll also become stronger. Running efficiency is a huge factor when it comes to determining running ability. It’s often that people forget this.
What do you think separates the elite athletes from each other? They often do the same amount of mileage, the same intensity of workouts. Additionally, a lot of them will weigh a similar amount and have the highest VO2 max. It’s their running efficiency. The more efficient they are, the less energy they waste, the faster they can run for longer. It really is that simple when you look at it that way.
Easy running is called ‘easy’ for a reason. If you went out for an hour easy run you won’t be too taxed. Last night I ran 60minutes with an average heart rate of 127bpm. When I finished I felt like I had just been for a Sunday stroll. But what happened over the next 12 hours? Firstly, my heart rate remained elevated for a few hours after finishing (adding to the aerobic benefit we discussed early). Secondly, when I woke up this morning my lower leg muscles were actually sore.
Why were they sore? Well, I was teaching my body to run more efficiently. Because I haven’t done this enough, the muscles needed to do that were weak. I essentially worked out my ‘efficiency’ muscles for an hour straight. It’s similar to doing a 60minute gym session then waking up sore the day afterwards. However, over time these muscles will become much stronger. As they get stronger, they will be able to keep me running efficient no matter what speeds I am reaching. I’m using myself as an example here, but the same principle applies to everyone.
Lower your body fat through easy running
The last physical benefit of easy running is a must for all runners. It’s common knowledge that the less weight you are carrying, the easier it is to run. However, the weight you want to lose is predominantly your body fat, not your muscle. If you lose muscle, you lose strength. If you lose fat, you don’t lose strength and you can live an all round healthier life.
When you are running easy, your main fuel source is fat. The longer you train within your ‘low intensity’ zone, the longer you spend metabolising your bodies fat stores. As you increase the intensity, however, your primary fuel source becomes carbohydrates (glycogen, specifically) and you lose this ‘fat burn’ effect from your running.
The mental benefit of easy running
Running can be great for the soul. It can take you away from your screens, stresses and work life. This allows you to restore your hormone balances and get some serotonin and dopamine flowing through your system. There have been countless of studies done that highlight the mental benefits of exercise.
However this could be even more prevalent through easy running. When you’re taking it slow your body isn’t under any stress. You’re not worrying about splits, paces or recovery periods. You’re just going with the flow and letting your body slowly adapt in a beautifully efficient way. Taking time to run slow, not just hammering every run, can dramatically help give your mental health a positive boost.
As you can tell, there are countless benefits of easy running, earning their place to occur frequently in your training.
How much easy running should you do?
We will cover this in depth in another article. However, your easy running should take up around 80% of your total weekly mileage. If you are in the ‘base phase’ of your training, this might even be up to 90%. The reason being is that easy running provides all of these benefits, whilst letting you recover from hard efforts.
Some runners thrive on 70% or even 60% easy running. But these are usually runners who have spent countless years developing their aerobic engines and running efficiency. If you want to know how to balance your easy running with your workouts, get help with our online coaching service. Here you will get continued support and direction from an experienced athlete turned coach – who will help you reach your full running potential. Alternatively, grab yourself a personalised trianing program, which will be tailored exactly to your ability, goals and needs.
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