Easy runs are not just recovery runs. They are VITAL to your training in so many more important ways than just recovering from workouts or long runs.
I sometimes see both runners and coaches describe anything other than a workout or long run as a 'recovery run.'
While it's an order of magnitude less harmful than calling them 'junk miles', I don't like this use of the terminology. And as usual, I've got a variety of reasons, both physiological and psychological.
In essence, it is diminishing the importance and value of an easy run to just one of their many crucial benefits.
What IS an Easy Run?
First of all, let's be sure to describe what we're talking about! Like most runs, an easy run is done at a certain effort-level, intended to elicit specific benefits (adaptations).
Obviously an easy run should be... well, easy. That means very different things to different athletes, so it can be helpful to break it down further and use certain clues, such as heart rate or breathing. Commonly easy runs are described as 'conversational,' however some athletes can remain conversational at much higher effort levels. For our purposes here, I'll just say it's a run at an effort well beneath your aerobic threshold.
Importantly, there are very few drawbacks to going to extra easy. You still get all the benefits (perhaps more). As long as you aren't slowing so much that you lose efficient form and increase injury risk, there's no such thing as too-easy!
What Are the Benefits of Easy Runs?
A lot of people think that the only reason to run easy is to not get injured, or to recover from a harder effort. Those are important side effects, but certainly not the main reasons!
Easy aerobic runs are the foundation of any training program for an aerobic sport. It's that simple! The vast majority of time you spend training should be at an easy effort level. (Commonly referred to as the 80/20 guideline).
Benefits of running at an easy effort include:
Increased angiogenesis (capillary growth, enabling increased blood flow to muscles)
Increases in mitochondria (enabling increased fuel supply to muscles)
Increased aerobic enzyme activity
Improved adaptations in heart and lungs
Improved fat oxidization, leading to fat adaptation
Increased strengthening of bones, tendons and ligaments
Improved running economy (the effort required to run a certain pace)
Possible changes in your muscle fiber properties (from type IIa to Type I)
Easy running provides these specific adaptations in ways that higher intensities do not, or at least provide much less of.
Now is it true that doing more easy running allows you to do more running? Absolutely!
Is it true that it speeds recovery from higher-intensity workouts and long runs? Absolutely!
However simplifying the purpose of the majority of your runs to one small component ignores the real benefits, and can lead to poorer training. Why? Keep reading!
How Much of My Running Should be Easy?
Most of it. The commonly-accepted 80/20 guideline is worth using as a starting point, especially if you're not working with a coach.
80% of your running time in the week/month/year should be at an easy effort.
20% should be at higher intensity levels.
Generally you want to do that 20% at a much higher effort level, avoiding the middle ground of moderate running, as the benefits vs. risk are fewer. The exception for this is the specific phase of training for races done at that intensity level, for example faster marathoners.
It's important to note a few things when working out these figures for yourself:
Do calculate time, not distance. All your body knows is effort over time – distance is irrelevant.
Do include the easy running before and after interval workouts, easy components of long runs, etc.
Don't include the recovery intervals in interval workouts, because the way they affect the body is not the same as easy effort.
There are cases to be made for periodic deviations from this 80/20 guideline, in both directions. That's why I mentioned calculating for a month or year, not just a week. However if you're training in that manner, be sure you are well-versed in exercise physiology and current research, or working with a knowledgeable and communicative coach.
Why Not "Recovery Runs?"
One thing that can be forgotten when diving into the science of exercise physiology, training and coaching is that the mind is a vital part of training. Some people approach this with things like having 'mantras' for working through hard periods, and exercising positivity. Those are absolutely important, however equally important is the language we use.
To paraphrase Orwell, thought controls language, but language also controls thought.
The use of the term 'recovery run' rather than 'easy run' might:
Give the assumption that all that matters are workouts and long runs, and the other runs exist only to help you recover between the two. (Think of the 'junk miles' reference at the top. AGH!)
Reduce the awareness of easy effort running having it's own list of benefits that don't come with other runs.
Incentivize running too-hard on easy runs if you don't feel you need the recovery.
Promote working too hard on workouts and long runs, to 'earn' that recovery run.
So when DO I use the phrase recovery run? Honestly, I rarely do, though I usually prescribe 'shuffle runs' as the 6th run of the week, generally the day prior to the long run. While their function is to enable muscular recovery prior to the long run, it has also generally been two full days since an interval workout or threshold session, so recovery run doesn't feel like the right term either. If I were going to use it, that's where I'd do it!
Don't Ignore the Bigger Picture
My final note, is that training happens when days, weeks, months and years of training build off each other in both constructive and destructive ways.
Just like thinking in terms of 'training plans' can hold you back from long-term progress, if you view each training day as being isolated, you are missing one of the foundational intentions of training. Not only is general accumulated fatigue important while training, the ways different runs play off each other offer important benefits that are far beyond the scope of this article.
Compare the two scenarios below:
Day 3: Interval Workout
Day 4: Recovery Run
Day 6: Long Run
Day 7: Recovery Run
Day 3: Interval Workout
Day 4: Easy Run
Day 6: Long run Workout
Day 7: Easy Run
You may disagree, but I find the latter descriptors can help lead to viewing all runs as an important piece of the puzzle, rather than just interruptions between harder workouts and long runs. They're not njust about recovery – they have a vital purpose all their own.
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