By Brian Grissom
“Soren Kierkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of 3 miles an hour…” The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.
I had in mind what I wanted to say about the benefits of easy running and then stumbled upon the first few pages of Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways and promptly scrapped most of it. Yes, we will mention the facts around the benefits of running a little slower, but facts rarely change behavior. I’ve found that inspiration is far more effective.
Easy. Running. Two words that, if you aren’t a runner, rarely go together. Maybe that’s where the problem starts. Even as runners we can subconsciously take issue with this idea of “easy running”. Running should be hard. No pain, no gain. That wonderful feeling of soreness after a hard workout. The subtle (or not so subtle) stiffness that you feel when you get out of bed after a race weekend. The utter relief you feel when you are 5 seconds away from ending your last stride of the day. Seeing the crest of the mountain just through the clouds. These feelings are such a part of running that when our training calendar says “easy day” (i.e. you won’t feel any of the above feelings) we can very quickly disregard it in search of something more...grand. I’m pretty sure that it’s easier to run hard than run easy. It also doesn’t help that most of us have watches that when a run is finished that run is magically uploaded to our training app of choice which just so happens to broadcast to the world what we just did. Subconscious motives can’t be overstated...and I’m guilty of it.
Accessibility of our individual running lives has brought with it an amazing sense of community but at the same time an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It’s no mystery that fitness tracking apps have vastly changed the landscape of trail running. Just a quick glance through my Strava feed and you’ll see names like Walmsley, Jornet, Krupicka, etc… Every morning I can see what the best of the best did before I had my first cup of coffee. We’ve all heard the saying that “comparison is the thief of joy” and at least for me, comparison manifests itself on my easy days. But I’m trying to change my perspective.
I could rattle off facts on how we should generally follow the 80/20 rule where 80% of our running should be easy and only 20% should be hard. Heck, the fastest marathon runner alive today, Eluid Kipchoge, recently said that he runs even more than 80% of his miles...easy. Slowing down can help muscles recover quicker, help to prevent injury and also ready your muscles for the hard workouts to come. But we know all that stuff.
I actually did an experiment a few days ago. I intentionally took my easy day...very easy. My goal was to not go above a pace that was far slower than my comfortable pace. It was very close to the “trail shuffle” that I adopted after about mile 60 in my first 100 mile race. I left the headphones at home. I listened. I actually took a few pictures that I was pretty proud of. My awareness was widened. The quote from The Old Ways came back to me.
Movement is a funny thing. Too quick and the only thing you can focus on is what is right in front of you. Too slow and the distractions can also take over your thoughts. But right in the middle lies a plane of movement that gives your mind just enough intentionality to focus, but not enough to distract. Easy running can help your mind to recover as well as your muscles.
And if that isn’t enough reason to run a little slower a few times a week, I’ll give you one more, and probably the most important. I’ve found the quickest and easiest way to run easier, is to run with a group. If you are the quickest in your group of runners, volunteer to bring up the back of the pack. If you are always at the back of the pack, volunteer to lead the group and do them all a favor! It always comes back to community.
As I’ve reflected on some of my favorite races and best trail running experiences, almost all of them are because I was with a like minded group of runners enjoying the thing we love best. I wasn’t thinking about pace, splits or times. I was fully and completely in the moment. It’s a testament to Kierkegaard’s quote. Just think for a second the myriad of topics you’ve shared in conversation with your running group after a few miles on the trail. Some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had have been with perfect strangers, deep into a race while I was running a “pedestrian pace”. Yes, there are times we need to train hard, but there are far more times that our mind, body and spirit need easy miles and what better way to do that than in the company of friends, woods and trails.