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Hard versus easy: Why run intensity matters

When it comes to intensity, keep your easy days easy so the hard days don't seem so hard

track runner

It should come as no surprise to runners that there’s an important difference between hard and easy efforts. Both are essential for success and both must be taken seriously.

RELATED: Junk miles: Are “easy” runs sabotaging your training?

The intensity of any effort most often refers to your speed and pace. The faster you run, the higher the intensity. Every good training plan will incorporate a variety of runs that have you running at a number of different intensities. Most of these should be easy, but a few need to be hard. A number of experts have put forth the 80-20 “rule,” whereby 80 per cent of all training should be easy, while 20 percent should be hard.

How hard is hard?

Hard efforts such as workouts and speed work–done at various race paces or possibly faster–occupy a special place in training and have a vital role improving speed, strength and running economy. Doing one or two runs a week of higher intensity training is standard practice for those wanting to improve their performance. Long runs are often considered to be “hard” as well because of their duration.

In order to get the most out of these efforts, it’s essential to be well-rested, recovered and ready to run at the intended speed and pace. Being over-trained or too tired from previous runs will jeopardize the physical gains that can be made from these efforts, not to mention adversely affect one’s confidence. This can also increase the risk of injury and burnout as one pushes harder than what the body can handle.

What counts as easy?

Most of the running you do should be easy. Easy efforts such as ‘bread and butter’ runs and recovery runs develop the cardiovascular system, build a training base and improve endurance. These runs also allow the body to recover from, prepare for and adapt to the harder sessions.

But they are only effective if they’re done at the right intensity. The biggest mistake runners make is running their easy days too hard/fast. A general rule of thumb is to run easy and recovery runs about 60-seconds per K slower than marathon pace. And there’s no such thing as too easy. In addition to the important benefits you’re getting from running easy, you’ll also be better prepared for your next hard effort.