It’s a simple question. The answer for most people? At least sometimes, no.
So what do we do about this? If we’re at least sometimes not running easy enough on our easy days, what do we do to convince ourselves to back off?
I have three primary suggestions: focus on your breathing, focus on your legs and use a terminology change to shift your mindset once or twice a week.
Focus on your breathing: conversational pace
The first step is to focus on your breathing. It should be relaxed. How relaxed? While you shouldn’t necessarily be able to recite poetry on every easy day, you should be able to hold a conversation if you’re running with someone. You should be able to speak in complete sentences. You should be able to say more than a word or two without being out of breath.
Why does this matter? The alternative many people use is to focus on pace. The problem with pace is that there are so many variables that can affect it. If you’re more fatigued than usual, your pace should slow some. If the weather or the course is challenging, you should slow down. If you are feeling better than usual and you’re running a favorable course in good weather, maybe your pace should be a little faster.
The bottom line is, if you focus on your breathing, you’ll be better aware of how your body is responding to the demands you’re placing on it during every given run.
Focus on your legs: feeling good
To focus on your legs, you want to look for both soreness and fatigue. On an easy run, even if you start a little sore maybe because you did a hard run yesterday, things should get better as you go on. You should finish feeling reasonably well. As for fatigue, sure, a little is natural. You are training, after all. However, you shouldn’t feel serious fatigue even at the end of an easy run. You should always feel like you could have gone at least a couple miles longer.
Why focus both on your breathing and your legs? Because you need to check in on both your aerobic system (breathing) and your muscular system (legs). For most people, you will find that your aerobic system will improve more rapidly than your muscular system as your training progresses so focusing just on your breathing could get you in trouble. Either way, it’s good to keep an eye on both systems to ensure you’re not overloading one.
Much like focusing on your breathing, focusing on your legs allows you to adjust for the challenges you’re facing on any given day.
Terminology change: recovery run
Something new I’ve been trying with myself and have been adding recently to the training plans of some of the runners I coach is a terminology change. Most of us have come to think of an easy run as another training run. We want to get a good run in because it’s still training and we still want to develop that aerobic conditioning.
However, sometimes it’s best to not even think about training. Especially if you’re running 6-7 days a week but even if you’re running fewer days than that, some runs should be thought of more as active recovery. Don’t even worry about the training aspect. Sure, there will be some training benefit just by moving for a while but that’s not a priority of the run.
The number one priority and the only thing that really matters on these runs is recovery. With this terminology change, I’ve found that we can develop a mindset change as we’re running. It’s easier to justify going slower than we would on a normal easy run. After all, the primary goal is recovery and going slower will help you recover more completely.
Give these things a try. On all of your easy runs, make sure your breathing is relaxed enough that you could hold a conversation. Also make sure your legs are finishing no more sore than you started and ideally less sore and that they are finishing with just a small amount of fatigue. Finally, once or twice a week, don’t even think of your run as a training run. Think of it as a recovery run. Any training benefit is a far lower priority than recovering and making sure your body is ready for the days to come.