Recovery Runs: How and Why to Do Them

Natalie Cecconi
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What are recovery runs?

Recovery runs are running paces that you go at just aimed at ensuring that your body recovers post training.

In simple terms, it means doing a jog after your workout. You can do this jog for as long or as little as you want, depending on whether you’re goal is to enhance the recovery process.

Recovery runs have gained a lot of popularity in recent years. And for good reason. They’re incredibly easy to do, don’t require much time after your workout, and you can get a lot of benefits from them.

Because you’re going at an easy and comfortable pace, recovery runs won’t drain any energy while at the same time helping your body recover faster. You’ll experience less muscle soreness, less overall fatigue, and quicker recovery rate.

If you are new to recovery runs, start with 15 minutes after every training so that your body can get used to it. Gradually build up to 30 to 60 minutes after each training.

Like any workout or health regimen, recovery runs require consistency. Do them every time you train, at the same time each day before you wind down. They’ll help you minimize injury, get back in the game quickly, and have more fun.

Why should you do them?

Recovery runs are part of the marathon training program and have several benefits you should be aware of.

They Make Running More Efficient

Efficient running is an important goal for all marathoners. Running faster for the same effort or running the same pace but with less effort is one of the few levers you have at your disposal to run your personal best and in turn recover faster from your training.

Running at a speed where the demand on the muscular and cardio-vascular systems is at your lactate threshold or just below it is the most efficient and it is mostly determined by your muscle fibers. Doing recovery runs at this tempo or even slightly faster facilitates muscle adaptations so that the work rate at this threshold becomes more efficient.

They Improve Your Aerobic System

Good aerobic capacity is very important for fast marathon running. Recovery runs which are typically a little faster than the main marathon pace train your aerobic system and increase its capabilities.

Finally, they help you to achieve a smooth race pace.

During the marathon, the longer the race, the more important it is to keep your pace even and smooth. This can be very difficult to do if you get tired or experience other problems in the end. Recovery runs help to train this important skill.

Teach Your Body to Use Fat as Energy Source

If you’re trying to lose weight, you probably already know how important a good training program for weight loss can be.

Look no further. You are holding the answer to all your weight loss problems in your hands.

What is your biggest enemy when it comes to losing weight?

Your own body. Because it wants to keep everything you eat at bay.

Some of these metabolic switches that your body has, such as high blood sugar levels, are part of the reasons why losing weight is hard work. Your body doesn’t want to give up the fat and carbohydrate reserves it takes so long to accumulate.

Your muscles help reduce these blood sugar levels by burning it, but your body has put a backup plan in place: it produces glucose for itself from proteins and this is much easier than burning fat.

The problem is that this process happens all the time and the more you train, the more this adaptation occurs.

Thus, your constant efforts to lose weight may be falling on deaf ears…

Teach Your Body to Work More Efficiently

The human body is a complex system of levers, pulleys, and springs. It’s engineered to be as efficient as possible.

Almost everything you do physically is done by an associated muscle group, and those muscles only do one thing: either generate more power or absorb more force.

To run fast, you need to be able to use both. And since we all have the same basic body type, the muscles worked to generate power are the same muscles that protect the joints and spine when absorbing force.

If you can’t generate power, you also can’t absorb force properly. And vice versa.

In other words, if you have high fatigue in one area, you will probably have high fatigue in the opposite area. And here’s the kicker: If you can’t recover from overuse in one area, you won’t be able to recover from overuse in the opposite area.

As a result, overuse in one area can magnify itself and cause overuse in another area.

Incidentally, this is exactly what happens in the recurrence of an injury.

Teach Your Mind to Push Hard at the End

Doing recovery runs regularly will teach your mind how it feels to push hard at the end of a race. This helps build mental toughness to relax and keep the focus on the task at hand when fatigue sets in.

I recommend recovery runs twice a week, adding up to around an hour and a half each week. If you are training for multiple races, you can add a third recovery run session. I would like to keep it at two recovery run sessions though.

Is it enough? Yes, as long as I stick to my heart-rate monitor and keep pushing slightly above my lactate threshold. Then my body gets used to pushing hard towards the end and the mind learns how to handle it.

What does your average recovery run session look like? I suggest keeping it at 60% of your maximal heart rate.

This is achievable if you end each recovery run with just a few minutes of very easy running.

Don’t forget to push yourself hard for the last 20-30 minutes. This means that you will have to run above your lactate threshold at times throughout your recovery run.

Don’t slow down or stop.

Don't look back after 10K, look forward to 10K.

That little extra effort will teach your body and mind how it feels to really push yourself.

How often should you do recovery runs?

Recovery runs are exactly what you’d expect from the name: short, low-intensity runs meant to aid recovery and not to increase fitness. These runs are performed to aid recovery from hard training sessions.

So how often should you include recovery runs in your training schedule?

It depends on which event you’re training for. Most runners incorporate recovery runs into their training schedule on a more or less regular basis. As for competitive runners, recovery running is a part of their regimen in almost all their training phases.

For standard half-marathon training, recovery runs can be used for 1-2 runs per week. This is based on the usual rule of thumb that a lengthy recovery period after some demanding training consists of 1 day of easy training, 1 day of moderate training, and 1 day of hard training.

However, recovery runs are not an advisable training strategy if you’re looking to cut a significant amount of time off your finishing time. In that case doing regular interval training serves as the speed training to aid recovery. A mixture of 90% easy runs and 10% interval training is the most effective training strategy for long distance runners.

What are tips for effective recovery runs?

A recovery run is just what it means: a run after a harder run. It can be a run after a harder run on the same day or two days after. It can be a slow run or fast run. It can be a long run or short run. It can be a treadmill run or a run outside. It can be a run at a steady pace or intervals.

What matters for your recovery is that you go out and give your body the physical work that allows it to recover and aids in your performance down the road. Recovery running is a way to help your body recover, while still allowing you to go out and still be active.

The goal of recovery running is not necessarily to push yourself harder, but to get some of the benefits of running without pushing yourself extremely hard. You still push yourself a little, but you don’t get that same high or “hit” that you might get from your hard run.

Recovery runs serve three purposes:

  • To flush out the byproducts of the hard effort
  • To aid in increasing blood flow

Pace: How slow should you run?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I wish I could tell you that there’s some magic formula as to how slow you need to run, but it all depends on what you’re training for. That being said, it’s a good idea to start out by running at about 60-65% of your max heart rate and see how that feels.

Slow running tends to get a bad reputation. Many people think that running slowly is just a waste of time and that something has to give. That you have to push yourself to the brink of collapsing to get the most out of your training.

I’m here to say that in fact, if done right, running slowly can be extremely beneficial for many different types of runners. You can use slow running to condition for running races like a 10k or a marathon, to get faster overall, or to build muscle like a sprinter.

Below I’m going to go into detail about some of the reasons why running slowly can make you a better, stronger runner.

When NOT to do recovery runs

As important as recovery runs are, they must be done properly to be effective.

Doing a cool-down or recovery run can help reduce training volume without any reduction in the results.

However, just getting out there after a tough workout and just putting one foot in front of another without any specific purpose will not accomplish that goal.

Before you do a recovery run, make sure you know what your purpose for doing it is. Remember, recovery runs are not easy-breezy-fun runs.

They are designed to have a specific training effect on your body. If you do not use them for that reason, they will have no training effect at all.

It is easy to get into the habit of doing a recovery/cool-down run just because you feel like you have to do something after a tough workout. (If you are wondering why you should even do them after a tough workout, that’s a subject for another post.)

To be effective, you should not do your recovery/cool-down run too soon after your hard workout or if you just feel like running again. Before you do a recovery run, check your watch and make sure you wait for at least four hours after your hard workout before you do this run.

How to do recovery runs properly

Recovery runs are a very important form of conditioning. More than endurance or strength, recovery runs focus on one thing … how much work can you do without getting sick or injured. Of course, you still need the endurance to sustain the work-rate that recovery running demands, so there is crossover between the two.

Since recovery runs make you fitter, better recovery runs make you fitter-er.

They’re a very important part of the training of all endurance athletes, especially runners and other distance racers. The idea behind them is that they break up the normal and monotonous nature of the work you do, by challenging your body in a different way.

To begin with, don’t feel the need to go out and do an hour-long power-hike at the end of a hard cycling session. Better to start off with shorter, slower and easier dashes. This way your body adapts better and performs better.

All recovery runs should be easy. It’s always better to do a really easy recovery run after a hard workout than to make yourself even more tired doing a recovery run as hard as the workout you’ve just done.

Pick a flat course

It’s important that your recovery run be done on a flat course. Don’t use an old treadmill or run on an undulating road. To get the full benefits of this workout, you need to move slowly forward while also focusing on form and breathing. You will get more out of it this way!

Plan your workout for the end of your toughest workout day. This is an optional workout and, so, make sure you do not do it all the time. Just once per week is enough. But it can really make a difference in how you feel the day following your toughest workout.

Expect to feel tired and a bit sore while you are doing this workout. It’s the point of the workout! Therefore, it is not an easy workout. But it doesn’t need to be so bad that you are in pain the entire time. Just completely exhausted!

Although it’s an optional workout, it’s good to do it regularly. Perhaps once every three weeks. Doing it helps you psychologically.

The recovery run prepares you for your hardest run of the week. It gives you confidence that you can complete the tough workout. It also gives you muscles that you need for the tough workout.

Don’t worry about pace

Recovery is an integral part of any training program. It’s important after harder runs to give your body time to recover, repair and strengthen.

For those of us who are training for a specific event, we need to do recovery runs with careful consideration. We want to stay in shape and improve, but not so much that we risk injury or overtraining.

Running coach Bryan Heiderscheit recently put together a recent article outlining some general recovery run guidelines that you can either follow or make your own.

This is great information to take with you when establishing your own training program. Also, keep these in mind for injury recovery. If anything gets you down, remember that your recovery run is a chance to reconnect with running and your body.

Make sure you can hold a conversation

Don’t make the mistake of focusing on your breathing while you run.

Instead, hold a conversation (silently, to yourself) and accelerate and decelerate your effort as naturally as if you were talking.

Take the time to practice good running form

Believe it or not, most injuries could be prevented if runners would just work on their technique. When you watch an elite marathoner run, it looks so effortless and smooth … but if you observe him or her up close, you’ll notice that the runner has a remarkable economy of motion. Runners who habitually employ good running form tend to be the fast runners.

But instead of running like an elite marathoner, most of us let our form go to the dogs. The problem is that it’s not as easy as it sounds to run smoothly on your own. We need professional guidance to develop good form. And that’s why the rehab clinic restores good technique.

When you mechanically release energy, it’s much more efficient and much more effective. So many runners are able to go for longer periods when they start using good running form.

The Clinic uses this system of systematic running drills and corrective exercises to coach patients on how to run. A good run is not just about fitness but also about technique. The best runners run with good form, and it’s something that’s not natural.