Most runners know that they can’t run hard every day; they need to recover from workouts and long runs with easy days. But what should an easy day be? Is there a specific pace you should run? Should you run strides on easy days? Should you do core strength and stretching, and if so, how much? To answer these questions, I’ve come up with my ideal model of an easy day. Note: This is the longest newsletter I’ve ever written, so you may want to save it for this weekend when you have more time to read it. I think it is important, so I hope you’ll find the time to consider my version of an easy day.
1. Warm Up
The warm-up is the first thing you do when you get out of your house or get out of your car. You want to get yourself moving in all three planes of motion for two important reasons. First, you’ve likely been sleeping or sitting prior to this run, so you need to remind your body that it’s athletic and can move in all three planes of motion. Second, even though running is primarily a sagittal plane activity, athletes who are capable in all three planes of motion are going to have fewer injuries. The lunge matrix (LM) gets you moving in all three planes of motion effectively and quickly, taking just 3.5 minutes to complete. Click here to see the lunge matrix. Following the lunge matrix you should do legs swings. To see the leg swings, go to the 2:40 mark of this video (the Myrtl routine). These two elements take a total of 5 minutes.
An alternative to the lunge matrix and leg swings is a routine I recently learned at the Boulder Running Camps. Coach Patrick McHugh demonstrated Vern Gambetta’s warm-up, which includes mini-band work. It’s a great warm-up and definitely has you working in all three planes of motion, but it takes a bit over 10 minutes. I look forward to sharing more information about this routine in the future as it’s definitely a great way to warm-up for long runs and intense workouts.
2. Easy Aerobic Run
This is simple. You want to run easy because you need to recover from a workout or long run. When in doubt, go slower than you think you should. As Jeff Gaudette of RunnersConnect says, you get the same aerobic stimulus running 9 minute pace as you would running 8 minute pace, but at 9 minute pace you recover quicker and are better prepared for the next hard day. While 8 minute pace and 9 minute pace are just examples, the overall point is that you can and should err on the side of running slower on your easy days.
Easy runs are important because you get oxygen rich blood to muscle cells that need to repair from the previous hard workout. Running easy helps you to maintain the aerobic fitness you’ve gained in the workouts. More importantly, it adheres to the Law of Specificity, which says that if you want to become good at a skill, you need to practice that skill. So to be a better runner you need to run. While there is a place for cross training in a sound running program, the majority of the time you want to go for a run on an easy day. Quick side note: I think there is definitely a place for taking 2-3 week “active recoveries” once or twice a season, times where you would not run at all and instead hike, bike, swim, paddle, row, etc. for fun and recreation.
While most of my online clients have one day of cross training and one day where they go for a brisk walk, they also have easy running days assigned in their training.
Strides are a “need to do, not a nice to do” as coach Vern Gambetta likes to say. These are non-negotiable in my training plan. You need to do strides on your easy days for several reasons. First, if you do some strides at 5k pace the day before a long run or a workout at marathon or half marathon pace, your legs are going to feel better at the start of that workout. There is a motor memory that your muscles have, and if you ask your legs to go faster the day before a workout, the pace of the workout will feel much more manageable. Your aerobic fitness should be high enough that the beginning of any workout should feel pretty good. However, if you don’t do strides the day before the workout, you might feel sluggish even if aerobically the workout should be easy. Said another way, we don’t want your legs to be the limiting factor on your workout day, so make sure you get in some strides the day before.
I like to see adult runners do their strides in the middle of their easy days. 5 x 20 or 30 seconds at 5k pace with 60 seconds of easy running between is the perfect stimulus to do 2/3’s of the way into a run. If you’re getting ready for a 5k workout, then do the strides faster than 5k pace. That said, 5k pace strides are fast enough for most adults the day before workouts.
4. General Strength and Mobility (GSM)
Most runners aren’t as strong in their core and legs as they should be. Stronger runners are less prone to injury and strong runners can race faster even if they don’t make any metabolic gains, i.e. if they don’t get fitter aerobically. Additionally, when you do strength work you get a hormonal stimulus that is different than you get running. Specifically, you upregulate testosterone and human growth hormone, both anabolic hormones. Anabolic simply means “building up.” Running is a catabolic, “breaking down,” activity. When you view running the through the anabolic/catabolic lens, it makes sense that you would want to do some strength training to complement your running.
After each easy day I want to see athletes do some very basic general strength work. What types of exercise should you do? That’s easy. Follow this progression for 8 weeks and you’ll be stronger.
One question that I often get is “But won’t I be sore from doing this type of strength work on my easy days?” In the short term, yes. For a week or two you’ll be sore – both from the lunge matrix at the beginning of your run and from the GSM work. Soon, though, you’ll feel fine after this work on your easy days, although you may still feel soreness from the GSM work that you do after your hard days.
The mobility piece of GSM is simple – we want you to have good hip mobility. There are a few of you who may have hypermobile hips, perhaps from a background in gymnastics or yoga. But for the vast majority of runners, their hips are tight. The GSM progression above addresses those issues. You’ll notice that the first half of each post-run routine is challenging, as that’s the General Strength portion. But the second half is comprised of easier exercises, which is the mobility portion. Most of the post-run GSM work takes 10 minutes and there is a gradual decrease in intensity from the first minute to the tenth minute.
Bottom line: if you do GSM work you’ll get stronger and you’ll have a lower risk of injury. Pretty good deal for adding just 10 minutes to your training.
5. Active Isolated Flexibility (AIF)
I learned this approach to flexibility from my good friend Phil Wharton. This is also known as rope stretching.
The underlying principle is that all muscles work in pairs, so if you want to stretch the hamstring, you need to contract the quads. To do this properly you need a rope to assist you with the last few degrees of your range of motion.
This work isn’t sexy, but it’s really important and I want to see athletes do this as the final element of their easy day. Phil has a flexibility DVD/Download that has all of the exercises in one 40 minute routine. But when Phil and I produced the videos we knew we needed shorter routines as well. So there is a 20 minute and 10 minute “Quick Release” routine that are really about 15 minutes and 7 minutes, once you learn all the exercises. In my mind, this work is really 7 minutes on your easy day.
I’ll go in depth about AIF in a future blog post, and I’ll have a discount on the videos if you’re interested.
6. The length of the easy day.
This is simple. If you normally run 60 minutes on your easy day, I’m asking you to change your routine.
0 – 5 min: Lunge matrix and leg swings.
5 – 30 min: Easy running. When in doubt, run slower than you think you should.
30 – 43 min: Continue easy running, and now do your strides as part of the run.
43 – 53 min: Do the assigned GSM as outlined on the Eight Week General Strength progression (link above).
53 – 60 min: 7 minute “Quick Release” routine.
That’s it – the anatomy of an easy day.
Let me know if you have questions.