How slow do you go?

photo credit: rainydayrunner.com

I’m sure that athletes get as sick of coaches telling them to slow down in their easy sessions as we coaches are of saying it.  Why is there such an issue with what is fundamentally a pretty simple message?  Here’s my take on the situation.

The message

The first part of the problem is directly attributable to the coach and their ability to communicate.  If the athlete doesn’t understand what the coach is asking they can’t be expected to execute the instruction.  It’s one of the reasons why really good coaches are so few and far between, you not only need to have the technical expertise but you need to be a master communicator.

Where an athlete has quantifiable metrics that they can use while training (e.g. pace, power and heart rate) the message should be exact.  “This is an easy run, hold between 5:50 and 6:30/km” might be the instruction and, hopefully, the groundwork has already been done to give the athlete the skills to execute the session correctly.

Other descriptions may relate to physiological feedback such as breathing rate but in my experience using perceived exertion for these easy efforts is futile, athletes ALWAYS get it wrong.  If your coach isn’t already giving you precise instructions you need to take responsibility to ask, any coach worth their salt will appreciate that you care enough about following their plan to ask.

This isn’t work

The second part of the equation is directly down to the athlete’s mindset, easy is just too damn easy.  A well executed easy session shouldn’t feel like work at all, you can almost finish feeling as fresh as you started.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been told “I don’t think I can even run that slow” after setting a pace.

Both novice and experienced athletes struggle to come to grips with the fact that something that feels so easy could do any good.  We’ve all had drilled into us the ethos of “no pain, no gain” and “hard work pays off.”  Now I could go into all of the effects these low effort workouts have (and I have many times before) but most of you would remain unconvinced and head out and do the next session too hard again.  Instead I’d like to illustrate with an example of a top level marathoner Yuki Kawauchi.

Yuki has a marathon PB of 2:08 and a half marathon best of 1:02, making his threshold pace somewhere just under 3:00/km.  So what do you think his “easy” pace would be for his long runs?  3:30/km?  4:00/km?  Not even close.  Yuki Kawauchi runs his five weekly long runs (typically 20km) at 5:00/km pace!  This is the equivalent of someone who runs a 50minute 10km race doing their easy sessions at 8:18/km pace.

Now I’m not advocating that our athletes run quite that slow compared to their threshold, I think Yuki is a bit of an extreme example, but the principle still holds.  Your easy sessions need to be ridiculously easy, trust me you will reap the rewards in better aerobic fitness, reduced injury and better recovery.

What about me?

So if you’re not coached how do you know what your “slow” is?  With cycling it’s tough, unless you have a power meter you really only have heart rate as a reliable indicator and even that is quite variable depending on many factors that are not part of your training.  With running though I strongly advocate the use of pace, either by treadmill (boring and often inaccurate), a known course and stopwatch (again boring) or a GPS based device.

To get your right pace for any session I recommend the use of the calculator at this page with a recent race result (parkrun is perfect.)  Simply enter your time, hit the calculate button and find your training paces.  Be disciplined and execute these on training day and I can guarantee you will be setting new PBs throughout next season.

Train smarter, not harder.

Coach Trav