Recovery is a vital part of any training plan, especially when we’re talking about something that’s physically demanding like running. Though many runners include rest days in their training, lots miss out on a vital part of any training schedule: the recovery run.
Though this does sound somewhat of an oxymoron, running for recovery from running (yes, really!) is very helpful indeed. This active recovery (when compared to the passive recovery of inactivity) is a really great way to approach your training, especially when you’re trying to make gains.
What is a recovery run?
The clue is in the name! A recovery run offers the body a chance to recover from previous hard or long running.
Recovery runs are much more enjoyable. They’re run at a slow and very easy pace – even slower than your long run pace. A recovery run is usually done the day after a long run or a hard workout. It will be pretty short and not physically demanding compared to your other training sessions.
What are the benefits of recovery runs?
Using running to recover from running might seem a bit odd but there are many benefits of doing these runs. While your rest day gives your body time to refuel and recharge in a sedentary way, you can achieve these goals through active recovery too – though you have to be disciplined to make it a true recovery run.
Working through fatigue
When you complete a recovery run after a particularly hard training session, your body is completing this physical activity while already tired. The ease in effort and pace, therefore, helps to improve your endurance and stamina without adding to your fatigue.
When the body learns how to adapt to working in an already fatigued state, you’ll reap the benefits of being able to run further and faster in your hard workouts. Essentially, you get used to running when tired and so can go longer before you need to stop.
Why do recovery runs?
If you’re competitive (even just with yourself) it can be hard to let go of running at max effort for a recovery run. However, it’s important that you do include some running in your training that isn’t at full effort. If you’re an endorphin seeker, it can be hard to force yourself to slow down and reduce your effort.
Lots of runners, particularly new ones, seek that thrill of pushing their bodies to perform each and every time they head out of the door. The truth is that with constant back-to-back hard runs, you soon find yourself making very little progress at all. And when that happens, it’s very easy to become demotivated by a lack of progress.
Exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler from Norway’s University of Adger, claims that 80% of your running workouts should be slow and the remaining 20% between medium and fast. What this boils down to is that if you run five times a week, only one of your sessions should be hard and the remaining sessions steady or easy.
If you’ve ever run a long or hard run and then had a day of rest, you might find that DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) kicks in. When you choose a recovery run instead, you get the blood flowing through your muscles and can avoid DOMS altogether.
When you do a proper recovery run, you won’t be adding stress to your body. The idea is that you improve your fitness but don’t wear out your body.
You can even use a folding treadmill in the home for your recovery runs if more convenient.
Why do runners skip their recovery runs?
When you’ve got a busy schedule with lots of hard training, it can be tricky to slot a recovery run in. When a race is approaching, easy miles can feel wasteful and it’s hard not to think ‘I could be doing an interval session‘.
Yet as we’ve previously mentioned, recovery runs are definitely beneficial and they might even be more so than another hard workout. With a recovery run in your training program, you’re less likely to burn out and get injured.
When should recovery runs be scheduled?
This is where timing is key. If you do your recovery run three days after your long run, it’s not really a recovery run and you’re not going to get the benefits that you would have got if you’d done it earlier.
For a true recovery run, it’s best to get out within 24 hours. That can be tough mentally – especially if you’re marathon training and have spent hours on your feet the day before – but it’s the best time. This is because, within 24 hours of your long run, your body and legs are still feeling fatigued from your previous effort. However, they’ve had enough of a break to get a few more miles in.
Try to schedule your recovery run near the end of the week the day after your long run. So, if your long run is on a Saturday, your recovery run should be on a Sunday. You could also schedule it for the day after a tough interval session or speed workout. The key to success is to keep it slow and short.
Structuring a recovery run
The hardest part of a recovery run is ensuring the run is easy enough. It can be really hard to force yourself to take the speed right down – especially if you’re in the middle of marathon training.
When you’re aiming for a new PB or making good gains, it can feel a little contradictory to slow down. But remember, if done correctly, there are huge benefits.
Firstly, you need to consider your pace. Generally speaking, running between one and one and a half minutes per mile slower than your regular training pace is your goal. This will mean you’re at about 65% of your maximum heart rate. So, if you regularly run at 8-minute miles in training, aim for 9 to 9 and a half minute miles for your recovery run.
How should the recovery run feel?
Arguably the best way to know whether your run is a true recovery run is to pay attention to your body. You shouldn’t feel that you’re putting in lots of effort. It should feel easy and like you could have a conversation without feeling at all breathless. It should feel comfortable and your breathing shouldn’t be too deep or fast.
Many people fail to do a true recovery run because it’s actually quite challenging to slow things down. You might find that you set off at a recovery pace but quickly creep up to your regular training pace unless you pay attention.
Tips to slow down
For a successful run, you’ll really need to pay attention to your speed throughout and force yourself to go slower. If you struggle to do this, here are some tips that could help.
If you struggle to keep slow, try running with someone else and having a conversation. If you can maintain the conversation without struggling, you’re doing well. Sustaining a conversation means you’re working aerobically rather than anaerobically and so you won’t go into oxygen debt.
#2 Take it to the trails
Another way to slow yourself down is to go off-road. A trail run will curb your running speed naturally while also developing your balance and proprioception too, which is a bonus!
#3 Don’t wear a watch
Some people advise not to use a running watch at all for recovery runs and just listen to your body. That way you’re not worrying unnecessarily about your splits (or what people might think on Strava).
#4 Try a fasted run
If you get up and run without having any breakfast, you’re not going to be able to run as hard or as fast. With a slower speed, you’re using a lower percentage of our maximum oxygen uptake value, which means you’re burning fewer carbs and more fat.
Example of a recovery run
The recovery run will be different for everyone. What your recovery run looks like will depend on your weekly mileage, how often you train, your usual training pace, and the type of other workouts you complete.
Generally speaking, recovery runs should be short – a 5K or 4-mile run is ideal. It also should be the day after your hardest workout or longest run of the week.
For example, if your long run is 10 miles at a 7:30 minute per mile pace on a Saturday, you would do your recovery run 24 hours later on the Sunday and do around three miles at 9 minutes per mile.
Final thoughts on Recovery Runs
Hopefully, you’re now motivated to get a recovery run into your training plan! Here are the key takeaways to remember:
- Make sure your recovery run is within 24 hours of your hardest workout or longest run
- Aim for 3-4 miles in length
- Reduce your pace by one minute per mile to one and a half minutes per mile slower than your regular training runs
- Make a conscious effort to keep the pace slow: having a conversation, running on trails, and running before breakfast will all help
- Remember why recovery runs are important!
To summarise, implementing a recovery run once a week will boost your endurance and increase your mileage while also building your mental strength. What’s not to like?!
Make sure you try a recovery run after your next tough workout!