The Art Of The Easy Shuffle
Easy is not a constant pace each day. And sometimes, keeping it easy physically and mentally requires a run to be very, very slow.
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Easy is not a constant pace each day. Easy is an effort level that can vary based on stress. And, sometimes, keeping it easy physically and mentally requires a run to be very, very slow. Slow runs now can lead to speed breakthroughs later.
I’m not talking a bit slower than a normal mid-effort day. Oh, no. When I say shuffle, I mean getting out and bouncing around at a pace that might be closer to a brisk walk than a typical run. You’ll know you’re doing it right when your dog spends most of the run silently judging you.
Understanding the art of the shuffle seems to be something that comes with age and wisdom for many athletes. For example, world marathon champion Lelisa Desisa’s training log just came out and showed some 10K runs that took him an hour. That’s 9:40-min/mile pace, or around double his marathon pace. World record holder Eliud Kipchoge’s log was similar. Olympic medalist Sally Kipyego will do many easy runs at 8-9-min/mile pace. The same goes for tons of other world-class athletes. On the flip-side, the Nike Oregon Project popularized fast easy runs, influencing many developing athletes, which turned out to be like modeling hitting approach after Mark McGwire or financial strategy after Bernie Madoff.
For most athletes, it was never sustainable to consistently run easy runs too fast, and our bodies get worse at hiding from unsustainable behaviors with time.
Many U.S. college teams are notorious for running easy days pretty quickly. Often, that can work at first. But remember what else your body could do in college. At 20, many athletes stay out until 3 a.m. and slay a long run in the morning. At 30, have a glass-and-a-half of red wine with dinner and it might result in a hangover that requires quarantine. Physical stress from running can work similarly.
However, the behavior patterns reinforced by having breakthroughs at a time of doing faster easy runs can create correlation-not-causation associations that may undermine long-term growth. That principle is most evident in athletes who don’t have recovery superpowers, whether those powers come from chemical assistance or natural recovery talent. For most athletes, it was never sustainable to consistently run easy runs too fast, and our bodies get worse at hiding from unsustainable behaviors with time.
So what is a shuffle?
A shuffle is as slow as you need to go to make a run purely easy. Multiple minutes per mile slower than marathon pace is a solid ballpark, but it will vary by the person. Usually, it will be slower relative to race pace for athletes who train higher volumes (like Desisa or Kipyego). For perspective, I have seen athletes who race marathons at close to 5-minutes-per-mile pace do some easy runs at 8-to-10-minute pace, but I probably wouldn’t suggest an athlete who races a marathon at 8-to-10-minute pace do easy runs at 16-to-20-minute pace, when form may start to break down.
You know how when you run, there’s a moment when you have to put your head down and get moving? That moment can be daunting even for pro athletes. I think a part of all of us is like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, taking those first steps and thinking, “I’m too old for this [stuff].” That psychological hurdle can sometimes feel like it’s an inch off the ground and you’re Zion Williamson jumping over it and dunking on your doubts. Other times, it can feel monstrously impossible to get started, particularly in times of high stress.
That’s where the shuffle comes in. Is it daunting to walk to the fridge? Heck, no, it’s not, those are the most exciting 421 moments of every day. A shuffle is more like that. You start with some jogging at brisk walking pace, only picking it up if you’re not feeling any resistance. Sometimes a run that starts at a shuffle may even end steady, and that’s OK in moderation.
Why do you shuffle?
Shuffles are most beneficial in times of elevated stress. For example, perhaps you suddenly have to homeschool your kids and you realize that what passes for elementary school math nowadays is a mix of hieroglyphics and logic puzzles that may actually be an elaborate practical joke. Or maybe you’re in the midst of a hard training cycle and you need pure recovery with a mix of aerobic support (like Desisa, whose shuffles came between tough workouts).
Training approaches may call these shuffles very easy runs, recovery runs, shake-out runs or, my personal favorite, regeneration runs. I first learned about regeneration running just as I started out when I—a new runner whose aerobic system was held together by toothpicks and month-old gum—passed a team of Olympic hopefuls on a dirt road outside Boulder. I was naive but not delusional, so I asked why they were going so slow. They mentioned regeneration.
I first learned about regeneration running just as I started out when I—a new runner whose aerobic system was held together by toothpicks and month-old gum—passed a team of Olympic hopefuls on a dirt road outside Boulder. I was naive but not delusional, so I asked why they were going so slow.
I went down the internet rabbit hole, learning about legendary coach Renato Canova. For his training approach, regeneration can be 60 to 70 percent of anaerobic threshold (approximately lactate threshold, or an effort you could sustain for around an hour) or slower. Canova would say these runs are mostly about recovery between faster sessions, but also about base aerobic development that supports growth over time. His athletes mix in regeneration runs between harder sessions, often done as doubles.
These very easy runs work for the same reasons as typical easy running works (see this article on base training). Keeping effort relaxed can enhance recovery, while also increasing the density of capillaries around muscle fibers, increasing the recruitment of slow-twitch Type 1 muscle fibers, improving oxygen processing and improving metabolic efficiency. Those last two are catch-all terms for very complex processes (read more here).
In the past, I have suggested a general upper-end barrier of aerobic threshold for these easy days. But a shuffle is sometimes getting lapped by aerobic threshold running.
All of those physiological processes supported by easy running can improve with similar trajectories almost no matter how easy running is. I’m sure you could run slow enough for form to break down and for there to be almost no aerobic stress at all, but that’s difficult unless an athlete is very developed.
So you’re saying there is no such thing as too slow?
Yes, in a well-rounded training plan, most athletes can probably get aerobic benefits from going as slow as you can while still running. If you shuffled every day without pace variation, there’d certainly be a loss of running economy through upper-end aerobic regression and biomechanical inefficiency. But if you’re doing some strides, some normal easy running, and some faster running, you probably can’t go too slow on very easy days unless you get passed by a sleepy turtle.
If you’re doing some strides, some normal easy running, and some faster running, you probably can’t go too slow on very easy days unless you get passed by a sleepy turtle.
Focus on form, with light strides and good posture. “Shuffle” is just the key word I like, not a direction about how your form should look. If you can, force a smile and maybe even a laugh every five minutes.
When should you shuffle?
I like athletes to listen to how they feel. The day after workouts or before long runs is often a good shuffle time. Or they’re great as doubles, 20-to-40-minute very easy runs to add to total training volume. Shuffling is a tool that you keep in your back pocket, your trump card against fatigue or burnout.
Why not just say easy runs? What’s with the made-up term?
While shuffles are good for the body, they are really about the mind. Look, you don’t need me to tell you that life can be hard. We’re all hugging stuffed animals for connection and wiping with coupon books. That stress is not just “in our heads,” it has physical manifestations for recovery and performance. Add that to background stress of training to pursue your potential, and running can be pretty darn overwhelming.
And I get that. Running is not easy.
But you know what is easy? A shuffle.
Very easy running can improve your aerobic system, support faster running and buffer against injuries. More importantly, though, it can be really, really fun.
So log off the news for an hour. Let yourself feel silly. Put on some Hammerpants to stay warm and start running.
Then stop. Slow down. Shuffletime!
Hammerdances off into the sunset
Small Business Shout-Out
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David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.