Your guide to steady state running
By Henry Howard
While I don’t regularly do or prescribe steady state workouts for my athletes, it can be beneficial for runners. I generally have my athletes do the majority of their miles at a conversational pace, much like steady state, but incorporate a series of intervals into most runs.
So the concepts are similar as are the benefits. I’ve had some of my athletes recently ask about steady state running, which inspired me to put this explainer together. (If you would like to learn more about my coaching or schedule a free consultation, contact me here.)
Steady state running can boost the fitness of runners without taxing them too much like harder effort workouts may do. (The same concept I use in how I train most of my runners.) The physiological adaptations from steady state running include increased endurance, easier breathing, improved blood circulation, muscle endurance and greater fatigue resistance compared to high intensity running.
By running at a steady state pace, you are teaching your body to be efficient at moderate effort levels. Let’s address some common questions related to the workout.
What is steady state running?
Steady state running refers to running at a consistent, moderate pace that you can sustain for an extended period of time without getting too out of breath. Some key things to know about steady state running include:
Intensity level: It is usually done at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate or effort level. This keeps your body working but not pushing too hard. This is important as it allows the body to recover and give a maximum effort for a speed, interval or other quality workout later in the week.
Pace: Your pace should feel relatively comfortable where you could carry on a conversation during the run. The exact pace varies by runner. Go by feel — and back off the pace when it becomes challenging to speak in full sentences.
Duration: Steady state runs are intended to go from 30 minutes up to a few hours, depending on the training program, runner’s goals and their fitness level. The idea is to spend substantial time running at a pace your body can adapt to.
Frequency: Some training plans incorporate steady state running at least once or twice a week as part of a structured program leading up to a race or goal event. Performance improves the most when mixing steady state and high intensity sessions.
Who should do steady state running?
All types of runners, from beginners to elites, can benefit from steady state running. Here's a breakdown of who should incorporate steady state running into their training regimen:
Beginners: Steady state running helps beginner runners build an aerobic base and gradually increase endurance in a low-risk way, without overtaxing the body. It teaches proper running form.
Intermediate runners: Maintaining easier steady state runs allows faster recovery from intense workouts. The aerobic improvements provide a platform for better performance in races and tempo runs.
Advanced runners: Every training program, even for elites, incorporates steady state running to build endurance, connect hard training sessions and stay race sharp without risking injury from excessive intensity.
Marathon and/or ultra runners: Long steady runs are vital for marathoners and ultra runners so they can adapt to being on their feet for hours. It prepares them with the mental stamina and preparation, too.
Those returning from injury: Steady runs ease back into training after an injury due to the lower impact. They rebuild fitness gradually.
When should a runner do a steady state run workout?
While runners follow different training plans, there are some guidelines to keep in mind as to when to incorporate steady state runs into their cycle. The best times during the week for runners to incorporate steady state run workouts typically are:
Early in the training week: Many coaches recommend steady state runs on Mondays and/or Tuesdays after an easy weekend. Front-loading training with aerobic runs allows more recovery before the harder sessions later in the week.
Prior to speed workouts: Easy-paced steady runs the day before interval training, track workouts or tempo runs prime your body for higher intensity while still getting mileage in. The steadier exertion warms muscles up without tapping energy reserves.
Between intense sessions: Inserting steady runs mid-week helps maintain training volume while allowing recovery after prior hard efforts and before the next ones. They facilitate absorption of previous workout stimulus.
Long runs: At the start of a training plan for marathon or ultra runners, high mileage long runs on the weekends help build fitness. That’s an excellent time to incorporate steady state runs, which should be completed at a conversational pace. The duration serves to build endurance.
Returning from time off: Athletes coming back from rest or injury reintroduce running via steady state workouts to rebuild fitness without risking setbacks or injuries due to overexertion. The gradual progression gets muscles conditioned again.
Generally, all runners can benefit from steady state running on about 70 to 80% of runs. Keeping intensity in check prevents burnout while optimizing gains. It allows for quality efforts during the key 20 to 30% of speed sessions.
Integrating these types of runs appropriately around other workouts and rest enables optimal gains in endurance and recovery.