The Hard Lessons of Easy Running


June 26, 2014 by scratchtype1

The numbers seem alien to me. 9.25 miles on a hot and humid weekday morning. 53 miles in the last 7 days. 414.7 miles during a 76 day running streak. It’s not even the end of June yet and I’m only about 52 miles away from setting a new yearly mileage record. For me, I already knew one huge factor was discovering the joy of running barefoot and how much more rich of sensory experience it is to run without shoes. Doing so finally revealed a path to how I could love running as something more than a challenge to myself, a challenge to a type 1 diabetic. I fell in love with the sensation of running, the sensation of my body traveling through space and the sensation of the world underneath my feet. Such a love has made it far easier to go out and run, as a time to meditate, as a time think things over. As a time to be alive.

Still, love doesn’t teach us everything directly. Some wisdom is less obvious than a bright and clear love that thunders a bolt of certainty through you. Some wisdom is perhaps more slippery, you catch it only by seeing hints of it in the corners of the eyes, the flicker of shadows, the mumbles to yourself when you can’t sleep at night, and then you find yourself trying to put your fingers to something, to take it into your possession and knowledge.

I first began running at the end of 2006. Thanks to the internet, I could join to message boards and see what others said. Oftentimes and quite correctly, many runners would advise for people to do most of their running at easy pace. But here’s a question about that: what is easy pace? The most common cue for how to know is the talk test, that you should be able to converse comfortably if you’re running easy. I think that’s fairly good at getting someone to slow down, but even so, it maybe doesn’t always slow people down enough and because we’re human beings, we can cheat or deceive ourselves some.

When I resumed running last year, I did so without a heart rate monitor. I found what I felt to be easy pace by sometimes talking to myself, out loud, while running instead of just up in my head. It all seemed good. After Christmas and thanks to Amazon gift cards I received, I ordered a Garmin Forerunner 110 with a heart rate monitor. So I began tracking miles and heart rate with it. Even then I knew from prior experiences with heart rate monitors that I was running a bit above truly easy when doing what I called easy runs. But I ignored it some. It didn’t matter too much during the winter, when I was often forced into rest days because of conditions.

Then April 12th rolled in and winter’s grip had finally left. I was finally healthy again after a 3 week period that saw me knocked down with 2 separate colds. That was the day the running streak began. I was doing okay with it through early May, although feeling a bit tuckered out sometimes, until one afternoon the heart rate monitor and my expectations had a big clash of wills. The HRM and the legs won out. I had no energy to run hill repeats that day, even though it seemed like I should be able to since I had been running easy or so I had told myself. That smack stung my ego. But instead of letting ego drive my reaction, I put it aside and said to myself, “I haven’t really been running my easy runs easy enough, and today that made my idea of a hard run impossible.”

Based upon a post I had seen at Despite My Pancreas which led me to a post, Heart Rate Training for Clueless People (Like Me) at Shut Up + Run. I bought the book Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot by John Parker. Before the book arrived in the mail, I did go right ahead and began enforcing a heart rate limit based upon data I had from prior years. I began to run truly easy.

Parker’s book, its unfortunate title aside, didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. Still, there was a moment of huge revelation when he wrote about the hard-easy concept which made me sit upright, slap myself in the head, and say, “Duh!” Not at the book, but at myself. It was where he wrote about how you run the easy stuff easy so you can run the hard stuff truly hard. Now there’s actually two ways that you can end up not running the hard stuff truly hard — one is that because the legs are tired out that you don’t actually elevate your heart rate to the appropriate level or the second is that you get your heart rate up there but because of the fatigue in the legs, you aren’t running at the full pace possible for that heart rate. In that latter case, while you might still be getting the certain cardio benefits from that, you’re losing out on getting the full reward for the training of the neuromuscular system that coordinates the running stride.

So I said, “Duh!” and saw that Parker’s concept made a hell of a lot of sense.

But it’s not so easy to learn to run easy. The ego chafes early on. I wanted my cake and I wanted to eat it. I wanted a low heart rate, I wanted to see my pace still under 10 minutes per mile. If it’s cool enough, that can happen. If it’s summer and hot and humid, it doesn’t happen right now. But for the most part, I’ve been good about it. Every now and then I have an easy run that gets a touch too hard and fast and I’ll usually feel its effect the next day and the day after. But sometimes I get it right, like over these last few days. Tuesday was a hard run: hill repeats. I went after them as aggressive as I could and the legs felt it when it was over. The legs felt it too yesterday, felt it so much that I even made the easy run even easier. I ran it so easy and it was so humid that my average pace was over 11 minutes per mile. But I also ran it so easy that I was able to cover 5.8 miles and spend a lot of time in the heart rate zone where my heart will be given stimulus to grow stronger and larger, to where my cells will be stimulated to grow more mitochondria, to where the muscles of the legs and feet will have stimulus to grow more capillaries. Those weren’t junk miles I ran yesterday. They were miles that will help.

Then also those miles were so easy that this morning I ran about 9.25 miles. Once that would have qualified as a long run. Plus since it is Thursday, I allowed myself a little indulgence and a little quality and a little after 7.5 miles I sped up some and tried to hit a heart rate that I might see for a half-marathon. During that time, my pace was about 8:15 minutes per mile, although that’s a bit deceiving because that stretch has a slight downhill grade to it. Still it makes me feel quite optimistic that I can quite realistically expect to run at least 9 minute per mile pace for a fall half-marathon and potentially maybe somewhere around 8 minute per mile pace if things go well. Maybe that’s too optimstic, or maybe it’s not enough. We’ll just have to see what happens. In the meantime, the plan is to keep running as much as possible, mostly easy, and sometimes hard.

3 thoughts on “The Hard Lessons of Easy Running

  1. Jennifer says:

    I’m glad running is going so well for you! I myself am just starting to see the real benefits of heart rate training and I am SOLD. Your experience also inspires me to stick with it!

  2. tommarriage says:

    buying that book 🙂

    • scratchtype1 says:

      Search it out on Amazon or a used book seller. You should probably be able to pick up a copy fairly cheap. I’m not sure if it would work for everyone, but I think it can do a very good job to help a runner keep to the principle of mixing up hard and easy running.

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