Some Work, All Play Running (https://swaprunning.com) is Strava's Featured Coach for September and we'll be posting on a training topic each week. Big thanks to Strava for the honor and an amazing service! This week: the key to running training.
The most important days for reaching your long-term potential might be the ones that are the least exciting to upload to Strava. Easy means easy . . . truly, honestly easy. That probably requires you to leave your ego at the door when you set off on your run, and it might mean that your daily run is slower than your followers. And that’s okay. Embracing easy days might be the most important thing you can do for your long-term speed and health.
“Woah, woah, woah, stop right there!” I can imagine someone saying (including younger versions of ourselves). “Isn’t the goal to push until your body is in a gelatinous puddle on the side of the trail? That’s what the pros do, right?”
Wrong. The goal is to make easier efforts faster over time, which requires a strategic, limited use of harder work. In other terminology, running training is designed to improve running economy, making faster paces take less energy. Go too hard, too often, and you’ll be left thinking that your potential is way lower than it actually is.
This week, we’ll talk about your everyday training run. Next week, we’ll talk about workouts, where the same principle applies. By rethinking what constitutes a “good” run, you can make every run way better over time.
As coaches, we tell our athletes that the most important runs each week are the easy days, which usually account for at least 80% of total training time (with variance based on background and goals). That seems counterintuitive. Those days get fewer kudos, after all (unless you have a really good photo and caption). Behind that counterintuitive message lies many of the physiological principles that makes a runner faster over time.
1. Easy running spurs aerobic development
The key word here is “angiogenesis.” Angiogenesis is the process of capillary growth, largely occurring from functional demands, like those from running, which spurs vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) production. Capillaries transport oxygen and help remove waste products, so the more, the merrier.
Here’s the catch. Multiple recent studies confirm an element of training theory that has been around since the 1960s: more intense exercise may actually curtail aerobic development via impaired angiogenesis. In addition, enzymatic activity that is spurred by easy aerobic efforts can run directly into a brick wall with too-hard training. If this were an episode of MTV Cribs, when we get to the room with easy running, we’d wink at the camera and say, “This is where the magic happens.”
2. Easy running recruits slowtwitch muscle fibers
Endurance running is a slowtwitch sport. That doesn’t sound sexy at all, we get it. You probably won’t message your Bumble match, “Baby, I’m more slowtwitch than the rest.” But if your match is a physiologist, it might work.
Slowtwitch muscle fibers have more capillaries, process oxygen more efficiently, and generate more sustainable force than their fast-twitch counterparts. Fast-twitch fibers are broken down into two subgroups: Type IIa intermediate fibers and Type IIx pure power fibers. Endurance runners want to be as ST and FT IIa as possible relative to their genetic predispositions.
An ingenious recent study showed how aerobic exercise can help you shake what yo momma gave ya more efficiently. In the study, identical twins took separate paths, with one doing a few decades of endurance exercise, and one living the couch potato life. The endurance twin had 55% greater expression of ST muscle fibers, lower bodyfat, higher aerobic capacity, saved more on their car insurance, etc. Low-level aerobic activity can raise our genetic ceiling over long time horizons. Go too hard, and you’re recruiting those rapidly fatiguing FT fibers. And fatiguing rapidly is bad for performance, for running races and Bumble matches alike.
3. Easy running improves running economy
Running economy is a catch-all term that incorporates dozens of physiological variables, most of which are improved or supported by higher-volume aerobic training. More is not always better, but it usually is. As Quenton Cassidy learned in the book Once a Runner, it’s all about the Trial of Miles.
Running more supports aerobic, neuromuscular, biomechanical, and musculoskeletal adaptations that make running easier over time. To run more, your everyday effort needs to be easy to avoid injury and burnout. No one wins anything with fast easy days unless the local MRI office provides a punch-card where you get every 5th image free.
Most runners will get faster just by increasing mileage while doing faster strides (as written about in last week’s article here: https://www.strava.com/athletes/1733803/posts/2951648). If you run too fast on easy days, you’ll develop less aerobically even if you don’t get injured, stagnating after the short-term rewards are exhausted.
So what does easy running actually mean? For the purposes of this article, we don’t need to get too far into the weeds. It should be conversational (able to rap a verse from a new Eminem single), lower heart rate (usually aerobic threshold or below), and relaxed (no urge to stop). Or, to put it another way, ask yourself this question:
Does your easy run impress your Strava followers?
If the answer is “yes,” you are probably going too fast. Start your runs slow, with the option to pick up the pace in the 2nd half if you feel perfect, but never forcing it. Embrace the slow, embrace the strides, and you’ll find yourself laying the foundation to reach your true, long-term potential.
-Coaches David & Megan
We have a book called “The Happy Runner” and you can order it now! https://www.amazon.com/Happy-Runner-Process-Faster-Longer/dp/1492567647