The Science of Slow Run: Jay Bawcom Answers Some Important Questions
For many, running is all about how fast one can run or wondering what the next personal best is going to be. But to run fast, you also have to train hard for that, right? Well, not always. Here, we asked a few questions to Jay Bawcom on the science of slow running and to understand how it helps.
Jay Bawcom is a USATF-certified running coach and is based in Flagstaff, Arizona. Jay is a decorated coach who trains recreational and professional athletes including ones at the Olympic level. Bawcom has coached everyone from middle schoolers looking to lose weight, to state champions. Here, we discuss easy runs, its importance, how it helps runners, how to adapt to it in your training cycle, and much more.
Why do we perform easy runs/slow runs?
If you take away interval runs, tempo, fartlek, and hill run, what remains are the fillers for your weekly mileage. These are your easy runs and make up a substantial portion of your weekly schedule. Easy runs form the backbone of most training plans without which you cannot sustain a hard effort run.
Physiologically, slow or easy runs provide some fundamental adaptations. On an easy day, you are predominantly using slow-twitch muscle fibers. These are fatigue-resistant fibers that contain more mitochondria, myoglobin, and are aerobic in nature, compared to fast-twitch fibers, which are involved more in high-intensity training. These attributes help slow runs stimulate the formation of blood vessels and increase fat metabolism.
“All runners, and especially beginners and those coming back from injury, benefit from the cardiovascular and muscular development that easy running promotes. The base fitness built by performing easy runs helps athletes to safely progress to other types of training,” says Jay Bawcom.
Even seasoned runners alternate hard-easy days to maintain their hard-earned aerobic fitness and make continual gains in the running economy.
What kind of effort level does an easy run/slow run require?
Maintaining a slow run or an easy pace is subjective. What may feel like an easy pace for a seasoned runner may not be the same for a beginner runner.
“The use of conversational pace to describe easy running has been the standard, and I think it’s a good standard. If you’re running by yourself, it’s a question of ‘‘could I have a conversation at this pace?’’, and not necessarily ‘‘am I having a conversation at this pace’’, because there’s not always the opportunity for conversation,” says Bawcom.
Now, for a new runner, there may be no pace at which you can have a conversation and that’s where you start to use things like the heart-rate monitor and some of the guidelines that help you dial in where your easy pace is, based on the heart rate. It may be that you’re not actually running, but doing a brisk walk to get into that pace zone that’s appropriate for your easy effort days. You will hopefully progress beyond, but there’s a number of different ways to do it. “I think the biggest factors are to be consistent and know what approach to use,” he adds.
However, Bawcom believes that it is important to differentiate between an easy run and a recovery run. A pacer’s chart or a calculator app can help dictate easy runs if you are someone who has very specific goals like running a marathon. But recovery runs “should simply be whatever feels easy for you”, says Bawcom.
How do you differentiate between recovery runs and easy runs?
“Recovery runs are when you are running the day after a quality session, or at a time, where you’re actually recovering from stresses that your body’s been through,” says Bawcom.
In terms of effort, the upper level of a recovery run is the lower level of an easy run. Recovery runs go against the natural inclination of running faster for longer; it is your body’s time to relax from the previous day’s run.
In fact, Bawcom also stresses the fact that a recovery run is not really about building endurance. “It’s more about mobilizing tissue and fluids, and so getting your heart rate up is a very low priority. In fact, the priority is to reduce cardiac stress, and so you want to go really as slow as you can get away with, and still achieve the musculoskeletal mechanical benefits.”
How does an easy run play a role in weight loss?
In order to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit, which means your calorie expenditure should exceed calorie intake. While running does burn calories, how do you train to lose weight?
Our body utilizes carbohydrates, and fat for providing energy for all processes and movement. The amount of carbohydrate or fat used depends on the intensity of exercise. A moderate-intensity workout, which is approximately 55%-75% of your max heart rate is known as the fat-burning zone. If the intensity is above this zone, the body prefers to utilize glycogen, which is stored in the form of carbohydrates.
So if the aim is to lose weight, it would seem logical to run at an easy pace. “I find that when I stretch those easy runs out beyond one hour — maybe even beyond 90 minutes — that’s when the weight really starts to come off. But that kind of time on a regular basis is a pretty significant commitment and can be challenging,” says Bawcom. He adds “but, if you have the time, I really think easy running is a good way to keep the weight off. I prefer it myself, but I also have the luxury of having that time on occasion.”
You don’t have to always train hard to get the most out of running. Besides all the benefits of slow running that an easy run has to offer, the most important one is the reduced risk of injury. When you give your body the time to grow and recover, it gets stronger.