Commonly when I turn up to a club steady you can hear people, all of similar ability, discussing the upcoming run. "Well I just want an easy run tonight", "Well I raced at the weekend so I really want a recovery run", "hopefully it'll be a good steady pace".
Perhaps more worryingly after the run someone will comment "it was a fairly steady pace today" to which someone else will respond " do you mean too fast or too slow?"
I think there's a huge amount of confusion present as to what exactly is a steady run, what is an easy run and what's a recovery run and I certainly know that in my mind I've been guilty of mashing all three up together mentally. It is only now that I think I'm coming to an understanding of what each three mean.
You can say "well does this really matter all that much?" but to my mind it is one of the key things in the Lydiard approach which thousands of runners across the word follow which is majorly misconstrued.
Okay so looking at each term one by one and I'll put my view with it.
Firstly, recovery running, this is the slowest pace around. For me it is only one step short of walking and is generally from 8:30-10 minute miling. Maybe 8 minute miling on a good day. If you've seen me out on a recovery run then you'll be amazed that I can actually run considerably faster as I'm usually totally wrapped up to stay nice and warm and just generally taking my time. I'll regularly stop for a quick look around and just enjoy myself.
The purpose of recovery running is to loosen up the muscles slightly and get the blood flowing back through the muscles. It seems to get rid of a lot of soreness and just generally make you less prone to injury. It also must have some cappilarization effect and the like and obviously still burns off a fair few calories. In fact if you do need to lose some weight running at this pace is often the most effective as you can generally cover a lot more distance and it burns a higher ratio of fat. Aerobically it probably contributes something but generally not a great deal to my mind.
Easy running for me goes from 7:00-8:00 mm. This run should have an aerobic component but it shouldn't feel too difficult or hard. I think a lot of people run into the trap of using a pace like this for their "steady" runs without understanding that the aerobic and LT benefits that come from a steady run are actually at a faster pace and that currently there is a definitely underused area for development. The purpose of this pace is for limited aerobic development and for the general benefits of getting the "miles in" as it is a convenient pace to work at that stays conversational but I do worry that it isn't the most effective pace to run at. Are we in danger of running at a comfortable pace as opposed to an effective one? For an athlete in good shape whilst these runs do indeed have a use they do seem at times just fillers in a schedule but perhaps the most use they have comes when doing them in large quantities and using them to boost a schedule from a comparatively light 50 miles a week to 70 or more? Certainly even in the athletes who run 100 mile weeks the general sessions seem to be broadly similar in terms of distance covered with the bulk of the difference being more of "these" miles which may have long term cumulative effects.
So now onto the final one. Steady running itself. For me this is a term that seems manifestly misused and for a given athlete can seem to mean anything from sub 6mm to 9mm! Basically anything that isn't "race" pace (well apart from marathon) or walking. To me steady (or at least whichever term you like to use to describe it - part of this piece is I hope to establish (if only for myself!) a more consistent vernacular (is that word made up??? possibly) implies a strong aerobic effort. You shouldn't be wheezing or killing yourself but you should certainly be aware that you're moving at a fair clip. A full blown conversation about life, death and taxes shouldn't be possible but the odd few words should certainly be there! For me steady running mostly comprises of running between 5:45-6:30 minute miling. 6:30-7:00 generally tends to be an easy run where I'm going too fast by mistake. This pace has strong aerobic benefits and starts at literally just a touch slower than tempo running. I've only recently started trying to do a run at this pace more regularly and hope to long-term include a few more of them. They stay relevant as at 800m/1500m they help you with aerobic conditioning which is potentially a weak area whilst as a marathon runner they get you conditioned at close to race pace. This is the strong aerobic pace that I believe Lydiard was talking about.
Interestingly reading pieces by Marius Bakken (which partly inspired me to write this) he claims the Kenyans do a substantial amount of training at just below their LT which pretty much exactly agrees with my 5:45 pace and there are apparently a great deal of benefits to be had from working at this sub-LT pace compared to working at substantially above or below it. The link to the articles is here... Marius Kenyan Principles and I would strongly advise everyone to have a browse through as it is interesting stuff.
I do feel that there is the temptation when putting a training schedule together to include "Tuesday and Thursday rep or tempo sessions, Sunday long run and the rest as just steady or recovery running". This means that whilst you are likely covering very effectively 1500-10 mile race paces with repetition running at a faster pace and a tempo run and you are likely running a great deal at a much slower pace, certainly for me, there is a big gap between 5:30(tempo) and 7:15 (most easy running) where I do little training in and for a distance runner this is perhaps the key area. Relatively long, extended and entirely aerobic efforts. With reps lasting often a maximum of 5 minutes then there is often a real gap where strong protracted aerobic efforts are and I think that may be the reason why some athletes "train" so well, whilst racing poorly. Whilst regular tempo runs close this gap to a great extent, they can often be taxing on the body and equivalent to a "rep" session. Steady running at an appropriate pace is a vital ingredient to training that is often misunderstood and results in a significant pace bracket being ignored.