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One of the unique things about the sport of running is that there are so many different ways to be a runner. Some of us train and race marathons, while others are track athletes and prefer sprints. Still others enjoy 5Ks or 10Ks, and there are trail runners and ultramarathoners completing multi-day events. Some runners never run a race in their life, yet run diligently most days of the week for years and years. Some prefer structured training with specific days for intervals, tempo runs, hill repeats, long runs, and easy days, while others just lace up and head out there at moderate, steady pace day in and day out. Ultimately, there’s no “right” way to be a runner, nor a single “best” training schedule. It all depends on what your goals are, and what you’re seeking from your training and the sport at large.
With that said, particularly if you do fall in the large camp of runners who are training for some type of race or put yourself through the paces of at least one hard workout or long run in the week, you should be well-acquainted with the recovery run. Recovery runs are the unsung heroes of the training week—valuable players that receive little acknowledgement and are almost always overshadowed by the hard workouts, races, and even rest days. We analyze the ins and outs of threshold runs, building your long run, and the right splits for track intervals, and we frequently read articles reminding us of the importance of rest days, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on recovery runs.
While they may seem straightforward, it’s important to understand the purpose of recovery runs, when you should do recovery runs, and how to nail them. Even though they aren’t the star workouts on your weekly training schedule, recovery runs act like the players in the basketball game who make the perfect pass to a teammate driving to the basket—the shot (or hard workouts and races, in this case) would not be possible without them. In other words, if you want to smash your personal record at your next race, it’s important to ensure you’re performing your recovery runs correctly and getting the most out of them.
What Is a Recovery Run?
A recovery run is a low-intensity, easy-effort run that is typically performed within 24 hours of a race or hard workout. As the name suggests, recovery runs help your body recover and bounce back from strenuous, taxing workouts.
The Benefits of Recovery Runs
It might seem a little counterintuitive that running at an easy pace is actually beneficial for your body and can progress your fitness level. After all, we live in a society that celebrates sayings like, “Go big, or go home,” but when it comes to becoming a better runner, low-intensity, relaxed pace recovery runs should be viewed as part of “going big” because they confer plenty of “big,” valuable benefits.
- They help your body recuperate from strenuous runs. The primary benefit of recovery runs is that they help your muscles and tissues recover from hard workouts by promoting circulation. By increasing blood flow to your muscles, recovery runs deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles to help them recuperate and flush out metabolic byproducts. In this way, they speed up the recovery process and allow your body to bounce back and be ready for another hard effort sooner than if you remained relatively sedentary for a few days.
- They reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Recovery runs allow you to get mileage in and develop your aerobic base as a runner while reducing the impact and strain on your muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, and cartilage. Because you’re moving at an easy pace, the impact forces are lower, and your stride and impact pattern will vary somewhat from race-pace or faster runs, which reduces the outright repetitiveness of running the same pace all the time, and thus lowers the risk of overuse injuries.
- They help prevent overtraining. Because recovery runs are deliberately run at an easy effort, the physical burden they impose on the body is less than other runs. Interspersing recovery runs with the days you’re really pushing your body gives your body the break it needs to not become too fatigued or overtrained.
- They provide an opportunity to focus on your form. When you’re heading out on a tempo run, or toeing the line for 800-meter repeats, running with ideal form may take a back seat to focusing on hitting the pace or effort you’re striving for. Recovery runs are a great time to tune into your body, connect with how you feel, and work on things like running with better posture and correct form. The more you can practice your form at easier paces, the more natural it will become to maintain good form when you’re pushing yourself.
- They help your body get more efficient at using fat. The body relies more heavily on fat as fuel for low-intensity exercise. Spending time training in these zones helps the body become more efficient at mobilizing and metabolizing fat, which can translate to the ability to run longer and at higher intensities without “bonking” or hitting the infamous “wall” when your body runs out of glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.
- They are seriously enjoyable. Recovery runs should be fun. They’re a chance to just get out there, move your body, and appreciate the joys of running. Recovery runs are a great time to run with friends because you are well within a comfortable conversational pace, or you can listen to your favorite podcast or playlist, or hit the trails and soak in nature. You’ll get the mood-boosting benefits of running without the stress of hitting certain paces or having to follow a carefully-orchestrated fueling strategy to make it through your long run. You can simply relax and enjoy moving your body.
When Should You Do Recovery Runs?
As a general rule of thumb, every high-intensity workout or hard effort should be followed by a recovery run. This includes tempo runs or threshold workouts, hill repeats, track intervals or mile repeats, races, long runs, and fartleks or runs with hard-effort pickups. Most runners should plan a recovery run for the day after one of these hard workouts, though some elite and advanced athletes who “double,” or run twice a day, will often do a recovery run as the second of their two workouts, roughly 4–8 hours after their hard effort.
On the other hand, if you tend to do all your runs at a conversational pace, you may not need to incorporate recovery runs into your routine. Similarly, if you do push yourself through structured, intense workouts or races but only have the time, desire, or ability to run 3–4 days per week, you can probably save your running days for the harder efforts and just do a recovery run after the toughest weekly workout or substitute the recovery run with a low-impact form of cross-training exercise instead. Just make sure that if you choose to bike, hike, swim, row, or hop on the elliptical instead of run, you replicate the easy effort of the recovery run and don’t push your body too much.
How to Nail Your Recovery Runs
The goal is to get your heart pumping and muscles working so that you increase circulation and aid recovery. You want to run at an easy, conversational pace. This should be an effort of 3 to 5 on a scale of 1–10, where 10 is an all-out effort. Essentially, you can’t go “too easy” for a recovery run to be productive and effective. When in doubt, ease up.
If you like to train by heart rate, you want to make sure your heart rate stays below 70 percent of your maximum during your recovery runs, though even lower—like 60–65 percent—is ideal. You should be able to pass the “talk test,” which means that you’re running easily enough that you can carry on a full conversation as you go. If it helps you take it easier, plan to bring a friend or two along on recovery run days and make it a time to talk and catch up, ensuring you’re staying at a true conversational pace.
Note that relying solely on a pre-determined “easy pace” might not always reflect a true easy run the way heart rate or perceived exertion will. For example, what you consider an easy pace might be so on a perfect 50 degree day, but could actually be quite hard on an 85 degree summer day. It helps to remain flexible and try to forget your ego. Your “easy pace” might turn out to be much slower than you imagined before heading out the door.
Duration is another important component. Because the goal of recovery runs is to not tax the body, it’s critical that you keep your recovery runs relatively short. Most runners should aim for 20-40 minutes or roughly 2-5 miles, depending on your level of fitness, weekly mileage, and the race distance you’re training for.
As runners, we tend to be overachievers, and as such, we often fall prey to pushing ourselves too hard when we should ease up. Incorporating recovery runs—and running them easy enough—is an important part of your overall training plan, and will ultimately help you achieve those big goals you’re chasing.