The Importance of Hard/Easy Days for Runners

By , SparkPeople Blogger
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to the local horse racing track to enjoy a day with friends. Each Saturday morning during race season, the track opens the grounds for people to have a light breakfast while the jockeys sit and answer questions from the audience about horse racing. We even had the opportunity to visit the horse barns and talk with a trainer leading that day's session.

During our visit to the barns, one of the trainers enthusiastically shared with us what her job entailed. Her job was to prepare and train the horses scheduled for that day and to make sure when they were done, the horses were fed and their joints iced. One little snippet that caught my attention was when she mentioned that horses, just like runners, should never run hard every single training session. Just like runners, horses use the hard/easy approach to training which allows them to progress in their training without experiencing overuse injuries.

As a certified running coach one of the tenets we were taught in our certification class is to instill in our runners that they do not have to, nor should they, perform every run at full speed. Doing so can lead not only to an increase in injuries, but can actually slow the process of becoming a better and more efficient runner. But I must say it is truly one of the most difficult mindsets to change, especially for new runners who are so enthusiastic about the sport.

We live in a society where if some is good more must be better, but that is not always the case. I like to tell new runners that our bodies are similar to cars-- that is if you drive your car too fast or for too long of a distance every time you hit the road, the belts, fluids and other parts begin to wear and tear. The same is true for our bodies--if we push too hard something is bound to go wrong.

If there is one lesson I would like to share with you and that is, the body begins the adaptation process to running not when you running hills, intervals and long, slow distance runs, but actually when you are NOT running. It is during your NON-RUN time when your body begins to grow stronger as a runner.

So what is a hard run and what is an easy run?

A hard run is one that stresses the body to begin adapting to a new level of running. This does not imply an all out sprint, which leaves you huffing and puffing at the end of every run. These runs may involve running intervals, hills or even taking your distance farther than you have in the past. Hard running applies the principle of overload to your training. In other words progressively raising the distance, speed or intensity of the runs you have done in the past which leads to changes within the muscles.

An easy run, on the other hand, allows a runner to run at a comfortable, sometimes a much slower pace than he/she would run on a hard run day and many times at a much shorter distance.

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest mistakes runners make is not allowing enough recovery time between workouts. But they may also fall prey to keeping their training one dimensional. In other words, they fail to see the benefits of cross training.

Cross training is such an important aspect to a runner because:
  • It lessens your risk for overuse injury.
  • It allows you to continue to build a solid aerobic base.
  • It allows you to continue working but not in the same manner, so that you come back stronger for your next run.
  • It allows the mental break from doing the same activity over and over.
Running can be an enjoyable activity for many, but one must learn to listen to his/her body. If you find you are overly fatigued, no longer enjoying lacing up your shoes, suffering from mood swings, not sleeping well or experiencing a change in appetite, these may all be signs that you are overtraining and doing too much. As my former running coach once asked me when I felt I needed to work out harder, he asked, "Is your goal Nancy, to be a once in a lifetime runner or a life-long runner? Then allow your body to adapt to the sport." That was many years ago and I must say I am still running so I must have learned something.

Are you guilty in making every workout too hard and not appreciating the easier/slower paced workouts? Do you feel if you are not giving it 100% of your energy to your workouts, you are not gaining the benefits of working out? Do you cross train?

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MUSICNUT 6/3/2021
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
RYCGIRL 3/25/2021
thx Report
CD6913562 3/16/2021
Some good interesting information! Report
It’s good to be reminded of these things!! My group and I are more leisure “woggers” these days anyway but it’s good to be reminded to take a break. Report
Good article, thanks. I had a 'hard' run this morning, where I got out of breath quickly and had to keep stopping, feeling slightly sick. I didn't overdo it - I allowed myself the walk breaks. Maybe there's something going on, like a virus. But I am glad that I am now OK about these days - and more in touch with my body. Report
Awesome...thanks... Report
I do hard/easy runs and listen to my body. I'm surprised that there are times when my "easy runs" are actually faster than my "hard runs". Report
I did run but my back won't let me now Report
I am 74 years young, and I still try a little running from time to time. Report
Yes, yes, and yes to all the questions. In fact, I am reading this with a minor knee injury. Report
My husband is my running partner and we always argue this point. He is an all out 100% runner 100% of the time. No matter how often I try to tell him he is risking injury. I allowed him to draw me over to the dark side and voila ... I ended up with an injury!! Report
Excellent points! People think they need to run hard everytime they go out without realizing they are doing more damage than good. Rest and recovery are just as important as training, if not more. Report
One thing I point out is that you don't develop speed, power, or endurance by training, you develop these when you recover from training. If you don't give yourself adequate time to recover from your efforts you will not get the full benefit. Moreover, if you keep adding to your fatigue every workout without ever recovering you will run yourself into the ground. Report
thanks for the advice im new at running Report
I really struggle with this. I always try to give 100% each time I workout, and yes, it does leave me injured, frustrated, depressed that I'm not capable of more, and exhausted. I can't seem to slow down, I guess I will just need to try harder to take it easy. Report
Nancy, Great article as they usually are my friend! I know all these things you have written about and the hardest for me is to do them. Its very hard for me to slow down, I have been making a better effort to slow down and it has really helped me. thanks for the reminder - 39 days my friend and will be running HTC!!!!!

congrats on your 15k yesterday!!! Report
Thanks you know I am a ROOKIE runner! This article is greatly appreciated as I embark on my new lifetime of running and training. Report
This is so true....I have seen this in my own personal experiences. I have found that my speed, strength and endurance have increased as a result of training like this. Report
Great article! I made the mistake of over training when I first started running and injured myself prior to a race. My ankle and knees started hurting around mile 2 for a Full Marathon, my running buddy was doing the other 2nd Half of the race. I learned my lesson, to allow enough recovery time in between runs and also I added weight training, lunges and squats. One day is a short speed run and one day long distance adding a mile each week until I reached my goal distance. I prefer outdoor running and on the other days may do between 6.5- 8.5 miles taking Wed and Fri off. Report
This blog made me feel 10 times better. My knees have been screaming at me to slow down. So, I have taken the past 2 days off. I went from running 1 mile to 2 miles to 3 miles and a constant 3 miles trying to improve my time each day. Now I know its okay to not run 3 miles every day that its okay to take it slow and not to over train my body. Thank you for this blog!!! Report
This article was SO helpful. I have just recently started training for a 5k (running 3 days a week). Every time I start to train I get terrible shin splints and end up having to take a break from running and then starting all over. I was getting very discouraged and had visited a local running store to see what the problem could be. I bought new shoes but he said my form and everything else looked fine. Thanks to you; I now know that I was pushing myself too hard to fast. THANKS :) Report
Leave it to Spark to hit home! I just kicked up my workout to running and went a little overboard to the point that I did not enjoy my workouts anymore. I have since cut back and it has made a big difference. Report
Never cared much for running.. I'll stick to my MTB & Swimming.... Report

I agree! Training your energy systems is part of the whole training process. Report
I was applying some of the principles of horse training to myself, but I am guilty of overtraining. I was reminded of this today during my bike ride. I rode really hard yesterday and took 2 minutes off my time for my 15km ride. This morning I was physcially unable to do anything more than a really easy ride. I also have the fatigue and difficulty getting a good sleep the blog mentioned. Good reminder for me. Thanks. Report
Sometimes we must just slow down and smell the roses to renew our mind and our body! Report
I have been running since starting CT5K in December. I have been at a stand still since March, running 3 miles at 13ish minutes a mile. I should try more easy hard work outs and not just doing the same thing every day. thanks! Report
I look forward to my work outs & I keep it challenging..;-) Report
Awesome blog!! This exactly what I never knew and needed to hear. I now know that I'm not "just not a runner", I was just ridiculously over-training every time I tried to run, and that's why I detested tieing those lases! Report
Wow, this is timely! After my Tuesday run I blogged that I was intending to try to run today's run as fast as I could, since I only planned to run 2 miles. Lucky for me GSDMIKE called me out and reminded me that it was silly to try to run at race pace all the time. So I slowed waaaay down (13:30 minute mile rather than 12 minute mile) and actually jogged the whole time without stopping for a walk break once!!!

Now I'm curious, though, about what counts as "hard" and what counts as "easy". My current training schedule has two shorter runs on weekdays, and a longer run on the weekend. Obviously I need to take the longer run slow, because I'm increasing distance. But should I take the shorter runs slow for recovery too, or can I, for instance, incorporate (small) hills one day and maybe run a little faster the other??? If I do different kinds of intensity, does that give my body enough time to rest? Maybe I'll ask this on the Rookie Runners team. :) Report
I coach high school runners and I've learned over the last several years that the hard/easy training does not apply to days of training but energy systems used. The energy sytem used in a hill workout is different from the energy system used in a speed workout, VO2 workout, or a tempo run. Report
Guilty of all of the above. I do feel that if I don't give my best then I am not getting the best from my work outs. For me the work-out is a way of relieving frustration from my work day and I need to feel like "I left it all at the gym" when I am done. I don't want to take any stress back to my family and my house. I do cross train going from running to the elliptical trainer or the bike or even Tae Bo. Report
Keep going. Report
I'm pretty new to running, but I usually only run two days hard and one day at relaxed pace and distance. My problem is that my circuit training class is 3 day per week and hardly qualifies as recovery. It has been hard to take a day off completely lately, I just don't feel right unless I get at least 20 minutes of cardio in. Report
Such a great article. I've been working on running again this year. I have been doing aerobics for the past two years and I've been working on adding the running into my days off. For a long time I was thinking of aerobics as my hard days because it was so challenging to me and then I did nothing on the other days. I changed my mindset to think of running as my hard days and aerobics as my easy days. I really see the importance of cross training though, my body had gotten very used to the aerobics classes. I started running with a friend and it is a lot more fun. Eventually we'll get faster too! Report
What a wonderful article! I think I'm very guilty of overtraining - if my heartrate doesn't hit the upper end of my limits and stay there, I feel like I'm letting myself down. And I've found that it is very hard for me to change that mindset! And I'm noticing that I experience all of the overtraining "symptoms" - feeling fatigued, no longer enjoying the activity, suffering from mood swings, and not sleeping well. I'm striving to be "healthy", so I printed off this entry and posted it so that I can see it every day and make a conscious effort to slow it down some days. Report
Timely reminder! Now I just have to make myself heed it. Report
Thanks for the info! I tend to push myself hard... sometimes too hard. I ended up with bursitis, which I suspect could have been avoided by not overtraining. I've been working on moderation and things are going much better now. Report
I have only started running in the last month and can honestly say, I don't really like it, but I do like how I feel when I am done. My husband and i get up at 6 am every day and do interval training using Podrunner Interval training music found on itunes (free!) 3 days a week of walking/running and 3 days of running, one day off. We both feel sooo much better starting our days this way. We are just learning to be athletic (and teaching our boys in the meantime) and are trying to learn to do things right, this article confirmed that we are doing this right. The progress feels like it should be slower because we are not running every day, but we feel how our bodies are getting stronger, and that's what really matters. Report
A couple of months ago I started cross training because I felt like I was in a running rut. It has really helped me out a lot. I cut way back on running and started doing Jillian Michaels circuit training workouts 4 days a week. Now when I do run, I feel stronger and look forward to it a lot more. I'm just about ready to start increasing my mileage again and maybe reducing the circuits to 3 days a week. I definitely need to incorporate hills and intervals on a more regular basis too. Thanks for a great blog Nancy! Report
Took an injury and multiple attempts to re-start running before I internalized the importance of cross-training! I'm finding it very helpful not to do the same type of workout two days in a row.
Also for longer training cycles, a week of reduced mileage every 4-6 weeks is very beneficial - you come back to the running refreshed and ready to go.
I train with a heart rate monitor that has my heart rate built into it. Day 1 is usually 111-121, day two is up and down 121-131, day 3 is also up and down 121-131-141, day 4 is back down to 111-121 which is my fat burning zone. Doing zone training burns much more fat and not sugar or carbs. I also weight lift before I do cardio. Right now I'm training for a bodybuilding show in Sept. and will start cutting soon as it takes longer since I'm 59. Having a goal like competitions keeps me motivated and eating lean. Report
I run hard two days a week and do HIIT and metabolic resistance training three days. The easy run and recovery day help get me ready for the five day cycle of harder training. Report
Thanks for this. I am hoping to start jogging/running next month and into the fall, when it cools down a bit. I have been going on the treadmill, but outside feels so much better. I am hoping this advice will help me to train the most efficient way. Report
I am an example of overdoing it. I was so excited that I was actually running I kept going and doing something hard everyday. Then one morning I woke up and could hardly to the walking I have to do at work. I didn't dare even do my water aerobics. I am feeling better this week but I am going at it at a slower pace. I am determined not do that again. I may have gained a few minutes that day but because of it I have lost nearly two weeks. Report
I run into the problem now that I have gotten stronger that I have an easy run scheduled and I start out and it feels good and I just go with it, I try to back off but my body likes to tell me that it feels good it wants to run. My long runs I am training like I am supposed to but its the 5 milers that are a demon for me everything tells me to push and I give in I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that not that long ago I couldn't make it 2 miles without a walk break and now I can do the 5 or more without stopping. I fall into that beginner category who are enthusiastic I guess...I will have to tell myself to back off even if I am feeling good. I know I am getting benefits even if I am not all out, the truth is I think my body is ready to train harder than the training plan I have, even a hard effort compared to my goal pace for an easy run doesn't leave me wiped. I do cross train, some biking, walking, and strength training. Report
I do agree...that is what I am going to do easy walk/jog rather than huffing and puffing as I have been doing all week!
Thanks for the article! Report
I am guilty of this. Good article, good reminder and great advice. Report
i love runnig tho i cant do much i try Report
Great article and I am going to save it. I have been thinking about getting a running coach in the fall.

I tend to be very competitive with myself and try to take everything to the next level in all aspects of my life. Unfortunately with running or perhaps I should say fortunately with running - because I have had some pre existing injuries from broken bones - I have had to learn to listen to advice and apply the advice. I particularly like the advice of Jeff Galloway and have used his interval podcasts where he coaches me. I focus intently on what he talks about during the walk intervals. He too mentions huffing and puffing as a sign of over exertion and not running at a normal pace and to run slower. With running I have been slow and steady and my progress has been small step changes. I have to say I am pleased that I am a disciplined runner and look forward to my progress – say a year from now.

Yes, I do cross train but unlike running I take it to a higher level too quickly and I pay for it. Go figure ~ I am stubborn Irish?