For several years now runners have been told to slow down on their easy days. There is the 80/20 training philosophy, the Maffetone Method, and several other training programs that advise that runners should go slower on easy days so they can go faster on their hard days. But exactly how slow is slow? In this article, I’m going to review the literature on slow running and look at some tools you can use to help determine your easy pace. I’m also going to look at paces elite runners use on their slow runs so you can use them to compare with your slow paces.
The 80/20 Training Philosophy
80/20 running is a popular training philosophy embraced by several running coaches and well-promoted by Matt Fitzgerald in his book 80/20 Running. You can learn more about Matt and his coaching at his web site 80/20endurance.com.
The 80/20 philosophy states that 80 percent of your running should be slow and easy, with 20 percent of your running consisting of quality workouts such as running intervals and tempo runs. Fitzgerald credits the breakthrough in 80/20 training to the exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler. Seiler believed that athletes should train using the 80/20 rule but was not convinced by the limited lab studies done on this type of training. So Seiler surveyed athletes in several different sports and determined that those who trained 80% easy and 20% hard had better results than those athletes who trained longer at higher intensities.
Running Slow by Heart Rate (Maffetone)
Dr. Phil Maffetone has a complete training philosophy based on slow running called the Maffetone Method. I can’t go into all the details of this method in this article, but the gist of his philosophy is that runners are generally running too fast all the time and not fully developing their aerobic base.
Maffetone’s solution is to use heart rate as a guide to your running. He uses a formula where you subtract your age from 180 (plus or minus a few other factors) and use that as a constraint on your running pace. For example, I’m 62 so if subtract my age from 180 I get 118. That becomes my base heart rate and I should keep my running pace slow enough so that my heart rate never gets above 118.
As a guide for running pace, the Maffetone Method is fine although the one time I tried it I found the pace just too slow for me to keep my form while running. Runners complain about the method, though, because Maffetone wants you to run at this slow pace during your complete base training phase, leaving out strength workouts altogether.
If you want to read more about the Maffetone Method and the pros and cons of training using this system, see this article in Strength Running.
The Case Against Heart Rate Running
Several running coaches do not recommend using heart rate monitoring in training. One of the best justifications against heart rate training is found in Jason Koop’s book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning.
The first thing Koop points out in his case against heart rate training is that your heart rate is a measurement of your body’s response to exercise and not a direct measure of the work your body is doing. Yet heart rate can still provide good data on your workload but there are many other factors that affect heart rate, such as: body core temperature; stimulants such as caffeine; your emotional response to the situation, such as a race; your hydration status; the elevation of your run; and the amount of fatigue you are experiencing.
Because of all these factors, Koop doesn’t believe runners, especially ultrarunners, should use heart rate to determine their running pace. Instead, Koop likes to use Rate of Perceived Exertion. He uses the “talk test” as a means of determining your pace and for slow runs, as described below.
The Talking (and Singing) Test
One of the easiest and least technical ways to determine your slow pace is to use the talking test. If you can tell a long story while running then you are running at a sufficiently slow pace. If you can speak a sentence or two then you are running closer to a steady-state pace. If you can only get out a few words at a time then you are running more at a tempo pace. And if you can barely get a word or two out then you are running at your interval pace.
If you are alone, you can use the National Anthem test. If you can sing the words of the National Anthem in an easy, unforced manner than you are running at a good slow pace. If the words don’t come that easily, slow down until they do.
Running with the Kenyans
There have been several articles written over the years on how the Kenyan runners train. In almost all these articles, the writer is surprised at how slowly the Kenyans run on their easy days.
A good example is this article on the TrackSmith web site. The author, Adharanand Finn, who also wrote a book on running with the Kenyans, spent six months training with some of the top Kenyan runners. One of his first runs with the Kenyans was on an easy day and he thought they were playing a joke on him by running so slowly. He noted that runners who could easily run 5:00 minute miles were running 9:00 on their easy days and even slower sometimes.
One reason for running slowly, a Kenyan coached mentioned to Finn, was because the body needs a rest from the hard days they did so the body didn’t come to dread training. If you train hard every day, your body will eventually protest and that’s when injuries start happening.
Some Elites Run their Recoveries Really Slowly
You can use Strava or other sites to see how the elites perform their workouts. Some athletes also talk freely about their paces. One of the elite ultrarunners I follow is Ian Sharman. A few years ago Strength Running wrote an article that detailed two weeks of Sharman’s training for the Leadville 100 race.
Sharman believes that for a 100-mile ultramarathon, a runner should first get into good marathon shape. Sharman does a fair amount of fast running. Sharman is a 2:40 or so marathon runner and during the training block, the magazine detailed he ran a double Boston Marathon in about 2:50.
On his recovery days, however, Sharman runs slowly. For example, at the end of the week, after he ran the double Boston, he did a 4-mile recovery run at 8:40 pace which is 2 or 3 minutes slower than his marathon pace. The next week he did an almost 7-mile run/hike at 10:13 pace, which is almost twice his marathon pace.
Some of Sharman’s slow running is to mimic the pace he will be running in a long ultramarathon, but it’s clear that on his recovery days he runs very slowly so that his legs will truly recover.
Pace calculators are a useful tool for figuring out what your slow pace should be. These calculators work by taking the results of a recent race and then a goal time for an upcoming race and then calculate the paces you need for long runs, steady-state runs, tempo runs, tempo intervals, and recovery runs.
The two major pace calculators I am familiar with are the McMillan (no relation) pace calculator and the Jack Daniels (the coach not the whiskey) pace calculator. To demonstrate how these calculators work, I will use each of them to determine the paces I need to run to achieve a 3:55 time in a marathon I will (hopefully) be running in December.
Let’s start with the McMillan pace calculator. Here is a screenshot of the calculator with my past marathon time and goal marathon times entered in:
McMillan Pace Calculator
As you can see, my recovery pace should be between 10:18 and 11:04.
Now let’s look at the Jack Daniels pace calculator. Here is a screenshot with my marathon goal time entered:
Jack Daniels Pace Calculator
As you can see, this calculator suggests that my easy or recovery runs should be between 10:03 and 11:02.
I find that these calculators are fairly accurate at telling me how slowly to run my slow runs. When I run between 10:30 and 11:00 minutes per mile on my recovery runs, I feel refreshed the next day and can run hard without any sluggishness in my legs.
However, as I’m about to discuss, your experience may differ and I don’t think it’s wrong to run your recovery runs even slower. My goal pace for my 3:55 marathon will be around 8:55 per mile and running 11 minutes per mile recovery runs means I’m only running about 2 minutes per mile slower than my marathon pace. Many elite runners, especially the Kenyans, run their recovery runs even slower and I plan to test this out during my current training season.
Running is an Experiment of 1
The only real gauge of how well these methods work is how they affect your running. Every runner responds differently to various training techniques. This is especially true for determining the right pace for your easy runs. The only way you will determine what is right for you is to try out several of these practices for pacing your slow days.
Pick a pace based on one of these techniques or a technique of your own and use it for your slow runs. Then, run a race or a time trial and see how your running is affected. If it seems to be working, keep it up. If not, move on to another technique.
Also, faster runners probably need to slow down more on their easier days than slower runners. A 3:00 marathoner should slow down by 2 minutes per mile or more on their slow runs than a 6:00 marathoner should. Faster runners need much more recovery time.
Regardless of which technique you use, you will find that slowing down will really speed you up.
Thanks for reading and please email me with comments and suggestions.