Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Don't let the description fool you. In fact, despite the term "easy", these training sessions are anything but easy. Most athletes struggle to keep their easy runs at the correct intensity - below the ventilatory threshold. The "no pain, no gain" mentality of sport has infiltrated the realm of endurance training. Many assume that if they are not pushing the effort they are not improving. Extensive research on the subject, however, indicates the exact opposite. To improve one's ENDURANCE, one must perform the vast majority of ones training at an aerobic effort.
EASY RUNS are not slow slogs, but rather focused efforts, "deep work," "deliberate practice." To maximize these efforts, athletes can focus on how they feel, what their form looks and feels like, as well as other metrics that many modern technologies measure - pace, heart rate, cadence, power, etc. and how those metrics correspond with how one feels. For more information on running by feel, please read "Running by Effort."
Easy runs are also good opportunities to run on soft surfaces or introduce a new stimulus like ascending, descending or running on slightly more technical terrain with roots and rocks because the intensity is low enough that the new stimuli will not overload the athlete, but rather increase engagement and gradually prepare the body and mind for more intense efforts with the new stimuli.
We color code EASY RUNS in blue within the training plans that we design in Final Surge. Blue represents fully oxygenated blood because easy runs are entirely aerobic.
If using the TALK TEST to gage effort, EASY RUNS should be "conversational."
If using Relative Perceived Exertion to measure effort, EASY RUNS should fall around 5 on an RPE scale of 1-10.
If using HEART RATE to measure effort, EASY RUNS should fall in Zone 2 out of 5.
THE 80/20 RULE
When researchers studied the training of the best endurance athletes in the world (runners, nordic skiers, cyclists, swimmers, rowers, triathletes, etc.) they found that between 80 and 90% of their training falls at or below the first ventilatory threshold - the point at which the breathing rate abruptly deepens.
Stephen Seiler, an American physiologist based in Norway, is the scientist responsible for much of these findings among top endurance athletes. Matt Fitzgerald has written extensively about this research in 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower.
If the book it too intimidating, Fitzgerald succinctly summarized these findings in a Runner's World article entitled, "Train at the Right Intensity Ratio."
If the best endurance athletes in the world do 80-90% of their training at an "easy" effort, below the ventilatory threshold, it stands to reason that the rest of us should too. While we may not be running as much or at the same pace, we can certainly benefit by applying these principles to our own training.
Interestingly, however, many aspiring runners assume that because they aren't doing as much training volume as their elite counterparts they have to make up for their lower training volume by running at higher intensities. Fortunately, Seiler and others have already done the research comparing groups who do 80% of their training at or below the first ventilatory threshold and other groups who do 60% or less. The results were staggering. Those who performed 80% of more of their training at a low intensity improved. Those who trained at a low intensity 60% of the time stagnated and often underperformed.
CHUNKING YOUR TRAINING
Not only should the majority of training fall below the ventilatory threshold, according to Anders Ericsson whose research formed the foundation for the best selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, the majority of these training sessions should not exceed 90 minutes. In fact, for optimal results, most practice should be "chunked" into short, manageable 60-90 minute training sessions.
Among other things, Ericsson coined the term "deliberate practice." One key component to deliberate practice is “chunking” blocks of stress. "Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout. By viewing expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance, we are likely to uncover valuable information about the optimal conditions for learning and education" ("The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" 400).
In their best selling book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness emphasize the principle of "chunking" extensively.
“In the years of studying experts, Ericsson, found that top performers across all fields are unable to sustain intense work and deep concentration for more than 2 hours. Outside of rare, short-term situations, once this threshold is passed, neither the body nor the mind can sustain the workload. Great performers, Ericsson found, generally work in chunks of 60 to 90 minutes separated by short breaks” (Stulberg & Magness, Peak Performance 65).
BATCHING DEEP WORK
Cal Newport extends the concept of "chunking" to the "batching" of bouts of deliberate practice into blocks of "Deep Work." For creatives, these periods of "batching" may last weeks or months.
For our purposes, these "batches" of deep work align nicely with "training blocks" or "training cycles" leading toward a goal race. For more about strategically "chunking" and "batching" training to maximize race performances, please read, "Race Strategically."
TRAINING FOR PEAK PERFORMANCE
As coaches at Peak Run Performance, we design training plans for our athletes with these principles in mind: the 80/20 rule, deliberate practice, chunking, and batching.
As a result, the majority of training sessions are AEROBIC in nature, fall below the ventilatory threshold, and range between 45 and 90 minutes (unless the individual is not yet ready to tackle 45-60 minutes of continuous aerobic activity).
Regardless of the distance or duration of the event for which an athlete is training, LONG RUNS, or activities that exceed 90 minutes, are not the norm. In most cases*, long runs (continuous runs greater than 90 minutes) make up no more than 20% of the weekly total volume.
*Occasionally, ultrarunners do back-to-back long runs as part of a build up to longer races. When combined, these back-to-back efforts may exceed 20% of the total weekly training volume . However, even for ultrarunners, ultra long runs and back-to-back long runs are neither a daily nor weekly occurrence. Training sessions of 60-9 0 minutes of deliberate practice below the ventilatory threshold are still the bread and butter for endurance athletes of all stripes.