‘Gray Zone’ Running Could Be the Reason You’re Not Getting Faster—Here’s How to Get Back Into the Green

Photo: Stocksy/Manu Prats
Easy pace is a runner's bread and butter. As a general rule of thumb, coaches recommend logging 80 percent of your runs at a conversational pace and 20 percent at higher speeds that send your heart racing. But, as any pavement-pounder knows, telling yourself to run easy pace and actually running an easy pace are two very different things.

Generally speaking, easy workouts should be run at a pace that allows you to talk throughout the entire run. (If you're someone who likes scales, think of this at a three out of 10 effort.) However, it's likely that you're actually taking on these training runs at something closer to a six or a seven effort. This common mistake is called running "in the gray zone" and it can lead to a frustrating plateau.

Experts In This Article

"Grey zone running is when you’re using pace as your guide, rather than effort. It usually means you’re running slightly too hard on your easy days then not able to go hard enough on speed days," wrote running coach Amanda Brooks in a recent Instagram post.

This probably sounds familiar, right? Maybe you go a little too hard on a recovery run and the next day's speed workout feels awful. "If you're running your recovery runs or easy runs too hard, what tends to happen is that you start creating this low-level fatigue that you might not realize it's there, but is compromising some of your faster workouts," says Eric Orton, co-author of Born to Run: The Ultimate Training Guide

The good news: It doesn't have to feel this way. In fact, the vast majority (remember: 80 percent) of your running should feel almost as easy as strolling around your neighborhood.

Now, you may be thinking: If I'm running easy for four out of every five runs, how will I possibly get faster? It's a good question, and according to Brooks, the answer is because of that killer combination of easy, peasy training and speed runs.

"Hard miles are building power, activating fast-twitch muscles, and refining race pace," she explained on her Instagram post. Meanwhile, those stress-free runs up your aerobic fitness. This means that, over time, your easy pace will naturally become a little faster for you. For example, if you're running a 10-minute mile in the recovery runs at the beginning of training for a half marathon, there's a good chance that, if you let your body recover enough on easy days, training speed and stamina could bring you down to a 9:45 or 9:30-mile pace over time. Cool, right?

Now, if you're deeper into your training plan and feeling ready to step your speed up, Orton recommends trying a hybrid version of these two workouts where you combine effortless running with effortful intervals. "So instead of taking your long, easy run, you maybe try four by 10 minute [hard intervals], followed by 90 minutes of easy running and ending with a fartlek," he says. For the uninitiated, a fartlek is any speed play where you're toggling through different paces. Here's an example version of Orton's workout that you can follow once you're feeling really confident in your speed runs and easy runs:

  • Warmup
  • 4 x 10-minute intervals at 10K pace (6 out of 10 effort) with one minute of rest in between each interval
  • 45 minutes of easy running (3 out of 10 effort)
  • Fartlek: 3 x 30 second intervals at 1-mile pace (9 out of 10 effort) with one minute of rest in between intervals
  • Cooldown

The number one rule here: Stay out of the gray zone. Instead, think about the purpose of your run before you run it. If today is an easy run designed to build endurance and help you recover from yesterday's speed work, don't make it harder than it needs to be. We're not reinventing the running shoe here, after all.

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