Since 1989, I’ve either lived in Kenya or hung-out in Kenya for extended stays. In fact, Stazza’s Stable Headquarters/high altitude training camp is in Iten, Kenya. During my most recent stay at our HQ, from October 2018 through February 2019, I often spent time chatting with legendary coach and friend of mine, Hugo van den Broek, about many running related topics. One of our chats centred around polarised training and running slow for recovery. Prior to my chat with Hugo, I posted within my own training group on Strava about the importance of running slow. The post triggered a great response. So today, to kick-off the ‘training pillar’ of our site, I’m going to share with you my original posts from my Strava group, about running easy…
Most of you are familiar with ‘our’ axiom of appropriate stress, recovery, and adaptation. When we bang out workouts, it’s important that the next day we run very easy/slow, so that the body gets a chance to recover, which facilitates adaptation. The improvements kick-in when we’re resting and on the easy days—not during workouts or running hard.
All over Strava, and particularly in Ireland, you see people running between 6’30” and 7’10” min/miles. Most of these people can’t break 2hrs 30’ for a marathon. This is way too fast. There’s no set pace that you should be running, however, I’d suggest that anyone (except elites) who’s running faster than 7’30” pace on their recovery days (day after a workout) is running too quickly. It doesn’t matter what the science says about stress loads from slow running/length of time in the plant phase etc, the science is light years behind the art of training/coaching.
To drill this home, if you look at most of the Kenyan runners (and Joachim, The Norwegian Kenyan, and Matthew Maynard, The Blackburn Butcherer) they tend to run between 8’30” and 10’ pace for their recovery runs. This is because they understand that the main purpose of a recovery run is to allow the body to recover from the stress of the workout, and therefore, trigger adaptation.
As many of us coaching in Kenya say, it’s all about modulation. What we mean is that there should be a wide gap between the pace of workouts and recovery runs. We also mean that the recovery process should continue until full recovery has been achieved. (When we say, to run fast you have to run fast in training, we mean in workouts and not easy runs.) Running between 6’30” and 7’10” pace, for non-elites, is what I call, ‘the dead zone’. If you run at these paces after workouts, you are effectively taking two steps forward (the workout) one step back (‘recovery’). Also, you are increasing the risk of injury.
For the majority of runners who run in the dead zone, year on year, they only make minimal improvements (you’ll see them all over Strava). They also get caught up in what I call, the cycle of mediocrity: this is where they make small gains, get injured, come back too quickly, and then repeat the process. These runners spend years training, bashing their heads against brick walls, wondering why they are not making decent improvements—don’t fall into this category.
If you look at Matthew Maynard, nineteen minutes improvement over the half marathon (in eight months), Marcus Brown, (similar sort of improvement and time frame), they are examples of what can be achieved with the right approach to recovery runs. Granted, there’s more to it than running the easy runs easy, it’s more to do with progressive and structured training, but recovery runs are an essential ingredient in this recipe.
The blood-orange trails of Kenya are swamped with world class runners, plodding around at 9’-10’ mile pace. What makes you so much better than them?
What Makes You Better Than World class Kenyans? Part 2.
The first post about slowing down on recovery runs went down a treat: loads of Stablemates started slowing down and discussing the topic. In the comments, Riley Cook (2:16 marathon, 63’ HM, and 3’42 1500m) made an excellent post and it’s worth looking at and opening it out…
“Slowing down to speed up is how I like to view it (slow down on easy days to speed up on workouts (and race days). I do think there are some key differences though between world class Kenyans and the rest of us: 1. The more volume one runs, the slower the easy days need to be (a lot of them are running 100-140 mpw) 2. They are running at over 8,000 feet elevation (that will account for almost a minute per mile in easy pace from sea level) 3. They are running on hilly, dirt roads (this will account for another minute compared to flat, paved roads). 4. They are professional runners; that is, they only have running to worry about – most of us are waking up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze miles in before work or before getting kids to school etc. So sometimes we face a trade off of a little too fast on recovery day or lower miles in our time crunch. I’m of the belief that you can recover and get your desired adaptations at 2:00-2:30/mile slower than MP. I don’t think you HAVE to go slower than that. You certainly can, and it may be even better for you, but I think you’re ok in that 2-2:30 slower than MP range. I can confirm that slowing down my easy days was when I really started to get faster and win races and hit PRs etc. It works.”
Riley’s phrase, “Slowing down to speed up…” is perfect and fits in well with the first post about slowing down on recovery runs so that we can run faster in workouts, recover better, and ultimately run faster in races—the goal. He then makes a few points, which I’ll address/chat about separately:
“1. The more volume one runs, the slower the easy days need to be (a lot of them are running 100-140 mpw).”
To some extent, this is true. The more mileage we do, it becomes more important to slow down, especially if workouts are in the mix too. Riley’s right about most of the athletes running 100-140mpw (at least, the world class runners). But it’s also important to note that many of them only run six days per week—generally, they take one day off for religious reasons or to facilitate recovery and adaptation. But the volume isn’t necessarily high. 100-120mpw isn’t huge—even with workouts. Many runners in Europe and the US bang out this sort of volume. Once you get up into 130+, yes, this is pretty high. Another point is that they don’t run slow because of the mileage; they run slow to facilitate recovery and adaptation. They could choose to run around 6’-8’ mile pace, but on the whole, they run/jog much slower.
Points 2&3 combined:
“2. They are running at over 8,000 feet elevation (that will account for almost a minute per mile in easy pace from sea level). 3. They are running on hilly, dirt roads (this will account for another minute compared to flat, paved roads).”
Iten is 7,800 feet above sea level but some camps in the more remote villages are higher than 8,000 feet. Most runners are in and around Iten (7,800) and Eldoret (7,200). Riley’s right that running at this sort of altitude, combined with the hills and surface, slows us down. But it’s more like 20”-30” per mile rather than 2’—for easy runs.
For me, running around here at 8’10” pace is like running 7’40” pace at sea level. Generally, the flat and downhill don’t make much difference for easy running and the surface is perfect for recovery runs. But as soon as you hit a hill or try doing a workout, everything slows right down at this altitude. I’d say that the altitude and hills average out about 30” slower for easy runs but make a huge difference for workouts: up here, workouts are really tough.
“4. They are professional runners; that is, they only have running to worry about – most of us are waking up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze miles in before work or before getting kids to school etc. So sometimes we face a trade off of a little too fast on recovery day or lower miles in our time crunch.”
This is an interesting point… It’s simplistic to say they only have running to worry about: they face similar problems to most people in the US and Europe, arguably, more: putting food on the table and paying rent is a challenge for most Kenyan runners (even guys running 60’-62’ for the HM).
The ones that make it to the very top, are ok. But again, many of them have problems too. Most Kenyans are up and out the door pretty early. We headed out at 05:00hrs for Richard’s 30km tempo on the Moiben Road: to beat the heat. Also, these guys have families and have to get kids out to school (much earlier than we do). But yes, the time constraints/stresses of life in the US and Europe are different and present other challenges. But the question is, should we be squeezing in extra miles at a faster pace or running less miles at a slower pace? I’d argue, and I’m an advocate of high mileage, a few less miles at a slower pace would facilitate recovery and adaptation better, and therefore, we would be “Slowing down to speed up…”—with more purpose and less likelihood of injury etc…
To summarise, Riley makes excellent points. And some other things to throw in are that the Kenyans rarely eat processed foods, they sleep during the day (they know and understand the importance of recovery) and this is a luxury most in Europe and the US can’t ‘afford’.
Extra point from, Riley:
“I’m of the belief that you can recover and get your desired adaptations at 2:00-2:30/mile slower than MP. I don’t think you HAVE to go slower than that. You certainly can, and it may be even better for you, but I think you’re ok in that 2-2:30 slower than MP range. I can confirm that slowing down my easy days was when I really started to get faster and win races and hit PRs etc. It works.”
I pretty much agree with this—would prefer to see recovery runs at least 2’30”-3’ slower than MP. By running about 2’30’ mile slower than MP, you’ll be ok. I think any faster and you’re increasing the risk of injuries, getting diminishing returns, and increasing the risk of staleness/chronic fatigue, especially for non-elites with full-time jobs and families.
Using Riley’s idea, this would mean for a 3hr marathon runner (6’50”ish pace), easy/recovery runs should be dropped out at 8:50-9:20/mile—perfect. How many 3hr marathon runners run this slow on recovery days? Not many. For a 2hr36′-2hr40′ marathoner, around 8′-8’30 pace”. For me, I’d prefer to see runners going at 3’ slower than marathon pace on the day after a monster workout and then 2’-2’30” mile slower on easy/maintenance/support runs. But this is when workouts are in the mix. If we aren’t doing hard workouts, then it’s ok to run a bit faster on easy days/daily runs.
Bringing this back around to my chat with Hugo, it was interesting to note Hugo’s views. Hugo wasn’t such a fan of polarised training. But when he asked my views on polarised training, he saw the point. I mentioned that it was ok to run faster on maintenance/support runs (if the runner wasn’t in a specific phase which involved big workouts). But the big problem is that most runners (let’s say those that haven’t broken 15’ for 5000m) run too fast on their easy days. This is a major factor as to why they don’t make decent gains.
Bottom line is that each run should serve a purpose. Are your recovery runs (the day after a hard workout) too fast?
In my next post, we will look at the benefits of running slow (all the science crapology).