Most runners, when choosing a pace, tend to go for an in between pace—not too hard, not too slow. They like to feel comfortable but also worry that too slow won’t help their training. Sound familiar?
I like to call this in between pace the gray area. And as a coach, I don’t like to see my clients stepping foot into the gray area if they are prepping for an upcoming race.
Why? This is that speed zone that really isn’t going to give you any benefit. Where you should spend your time instead is either going hard, or going easy. The majority of your time should be easy, actually, but when it is time to go hard, you should go hard.
Here’s the deal: to make significant gains in speed, you need to run paces that are challenging to you. A mixture of track work, tempo runs, hill repeats and fartlek can all play a role in helping you accomplish this.
But just as you need those hard, challenging days, you need the easy days, as well.
Easy days provide several benefits. First of all, they allow your body to recover from the hard work. When you do speedwork, you are causing tiny micro-tears to your muscles. In order to make gains, you need to rest and repair these tears.
Another reason for easy days is that they allow you to get the most out of your hard days. If you never take the amount of rest needed in between hard efforts, your legs will be too tired to perform at their highest level on speed days. You’re thus defeating the purpose.
Finally, easy paced days allow your body to gain new capillaries that provide additional oxygen to your muscles. We all want more of that come race day, don’t we?
So how easy should these easy days be? I’d suggest that on true recovery days—those days following speedwork or long run days, you leave the Garmin at home and just go by feel. Your body will dictate how fast it needs to go. Also run thee efforts solo, or with a slower friend. You don’t want your ego getting in the way of running as easy as you really need.
On easy days that aren’t recovery days, you can go a bit faster, but still pay attention to your effort level. If you wear a heart rate monitor, watch your pace to ensure you are at a low enough heart rate to be dependent mostly on fat for fuel. If you train by pace, a good rule of thumb is about a minute slower per mile than your current marathon pace. If you need help on this, there are plenty of online pace calendars to assist you.
So the next time you head out, have a plan for your pace and don’t let your pace ego interfere with it. The bottom line, however, is to keep the hard/easy rule in mind—anything else is really just wasting your time.