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How long should your easy run be?

The easy run is a crucial element of training that is often done incorrectly

Runners typically schedule their weekly training around two to three workouts, but what happens in between those workouts can be a little vague. Most do easy runs, but how easy should those runs be? And how long is too long? 

Paddy Birch is a 2:24 marathoner and coach with Pace and Mind in Toronto. He says the most common mistake with easy runs is that they’re not run easy enough. “Many people run their easy days too hard,” he says. “The purpose of the run is to recover, which is defeated if you’re not taking it slowly.” Without appropriate recovery, runners’ workouts will suffer. Here’s a guideline for how to effectively run easy, which will in turn help you work out harder. 

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How long should I be running?

Birch says this all depends on what you’re training for, but there are some basic guidelines. “For marathoners, recovery runs still need volume,” he says. “Marathoners actually do a lot of their training as easy runs. For them, I give between 60- and 70-minute easy runs, depending on their experience level, but rarely over 70. I think beyond that, you’re breaking down more than you’re building up.”

For runners training for the half-marathon and shorter distances, Birch says, “For the shorter distances I give either five miles or double days, which would be about two 30-minute runs. That’s still easy volume but doesn’t beat up the body as much.”

What about double runs?

Birch says for marathoners, they should try and do their runs (when possible) in one go. “You need to get used to spending time on your feet. But for the shorter distances, double days are great.”

Birch says moving to double days is also great for runners who aren’t responding well to their training loads. “If people are struggling to complete their workouts and adapt to training, they may be overdoing the easy run. One way to fix this is to move to two runs a day. For example, a 20-minute morning run and a 40-minute afternoon run. Once you run over 45 minutes, you’re working a different system.”

Birch says somebody who’s tired will benefit from a short run in the morning to get rid of stiffness and get their blood flowing, followed by another short run in the afternoon.

Photo: Jeremy Rae

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What about pace?

Pace is where almost everyone goes wrong, initially. Birch asks runners to look at the Strava profiles of some of Canada’s best marathoners. “Reid Coolsaet, for example, runs his easy days about a minute and a half slower per kilometre than his marathon race pace. If he can go that slowly, you can probably stand to slow down as well.”

Birch also says when he prescribes easy days by time versus by distance, people tend to naturally run slower. “My athletes always seem to go slower with time goals. Also, move your watch to the stop-watch feature, so you’re not looking at pace. The goal of the recovery run is to feel better when you finish. Don’t have a certain pace on your mind. Let yourself ease into it. The first kilometre might be slow, but that’s alright. It’s important to know the purpose of your run.”