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

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Triathletes with their eye on a long course race this summer are beginning to ramp up their running mileage. If there’s one thing that most coaches agree upon, it’s that a lot of triathletes and runners are making one significant mistake when it comes to their training.

That mistake: running too fast on easy days.

Easy run days are an important part of any training plan. They add all-important mileage while still allowing the body to actively recover from and adapt to prior training stresses. They act as the foundation upon which subsequent training can be done. But many triathletes sabotage their training by running easy runs too quickly.

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“Training is about inputs, not outputs. Whether it’s an easy run or a hard workout, the result matters much less than the fact that you’ve actually gone out and done it,”  says John Lofranco, the head coach of the McGill Olympic Club in Montreal and road running coordinator for Athletics Canada.

He describes “junk miles” as easy mileage run too fast. These are miles done too fast to help you properly recover for the upcoming workouts but too slow to be a stimulus for threshold training. It’s the runner’s “no man’s land” and a grey area that simply doesn’t help you get better.

But how fast is too fast? According to Lofranco, your easy running pace should be no faster than your 5K race pace plus 75 seconds. For a 22:30 minute 5K (4:30/K) runner, that would equate to an easy pace of 5:45/K. It’s also OK if you run slower than this since the benefits remain exactly the same. Run faster however and you’ll end up putting undue stress on the body and possibly sabotage your next hard effort. If anything, err on the side of caution. “I don’t believe you can run too slowly” Lofranco adds.

Another problem is that “many triathletes also tend to place a disproportionate amount of importance on workouts and workout results in their running,” he says. “Being a few seconds off on intervals or a minute off on a tempo run is almost inconsequential when compared to the rest of time spent training. Such a small discrepancy is not going to change the physiological benefits you get from a workout.”

You should always be able to answer the fundamental question: what is the purpose of this workout? What benefit am I getting from this run? Easy runs provide a low stress stimulus to the muscles, heart and lungs which hastens recovery, adds training volume and should leave you feeling fresh for your next hard effort. So slow down and enjoy it for what it should be: easy.