Why Is It So Hard to Run Easy?

Yesterday after work I laced up my shoes for 5 miles around my neighborhood. It’s officially taper time around these parts, which means shorter, easy runs from here on out. It was a perfect fall afternoon – sunshine with some puffy Simpsons clouds, about 55 degrees. Right from the get-go, my legs wanted to move. I set off up the first of my favorite hills, and instead of backing off, I gradually pushed harder. When I got to the top, I hammered back down instead of relaxing and letting gravity do the work. I didn’t want to ease up on the pace, and for the entirety of the run, I hovered in that “comfortably hard” zone – somewhere between half marathon and marathon pace.

This was, quite possibly, the stupidest thing I could have done. No workout that you do within two weeks of a marathon is going to help you for the marathon. And no workout that prepares you for anything is written as 5 miles total somewhere in between half marathon and marathon pace.

Even more worrying to me was that as I was running, I was consciously telling myself to back off. And telling myself back, no – this feels good and I’m going to keep at it.

This is certainly not an isolated incident – running too fast but not fast enough has plagued me throughout my past few years as a runner. So why is it just so hard to slow down?

As I ran on, I thought about this. I know (and fully believe) that to run faster overall, you need to log a lot of easy miles. Running your base runs too fast is a great way to get injured, and it also typically compromises your ability to hit paces on any actual speed workouts. I also know that during taper, the best thing you can do is to let your legs recover. So why would I sabotage myself so willingly?

I think – for me, at least – it stems from a long, well conditioned cycle of working out as a way of atoning for “bad” behaviors. I’m no special snowflake; I’m sure most girls were body-conscious and had some sort of strange relationship with food/exercise during their teens and early 20s. Skinny was the ideal; if you weren’t skinny, you weren’t good enough, and if you didn’t at least try to be skinny, you were even worse. Ate a cheeseburger and a piece of pie for dinner last night? Better hit the elliptical for a bit. Genetically predisposed to have boobs and hips? Jump roping for 20 minutes should help. The gym is a punishment for not being perfect, ergo it makes no sense to go to the gym and phone it in. If I’m working out, I’m working out.

Running is different – at least, the way I think you’re supposed to approach running. I don’t run to maintain my weight, lose weight, look better in a bikini, or atone for anything. I run because I want to become a better runner. That means that yes – some days, my work out doesn’t feel like much of a work out. That means that even when I want to feel that nice comfortable burn of a moderately hard effort, I need to stop and think about what I’m trying to achieve.

This is, of course, all much easier said than done. I think my brain is somewhat conditioned still to seek out that “comfortably hard” pace because it leads to the greatest reward: immediate gratification. I think the wires are still connected from the days when a moderately hard effort on the elliptical would erase any bad feelings I was experiencing about myself. A hard-ish workout to me is almost like a favorite teddy bear or blanket from childhood; it’s comforting, and you still seek it out occasionally, even if you know you should be mature enough to not lean on whimsical artifacts of a past life for present comfort.

I plan to focus heavily on keeping my easy runs easy over the next 11 days. I know that is one of the biggest favors I can do myself in trying to meet my goal for the marathon. But I also know I need to continue focusing on this in general; my plan for the next year is to continue building my base mileage, and I know keeping the easy runs easy will be essential to staying healthy.