Many of you have likely heard of “recovery runs.” It’s typically a shorter, easier-paced run done the day following a demanding run. We do them because we’ve been told that they enable recovery from the previous hard session. However, recovery runs really don’t help us with recovery! But they still matter, a LOT – read on to find out why.
Recovery Runs’ Myths Debunked
First, let’s debunk some recovery run misinformation. Let’s establish what recovery runs DON’T do. 1) They don’t clear out lactic acid. That occurs within an 1-2 hours after a difficult workout (p.s. lactic acid doesn’t cause muscle fatigue during the workout either!). 2) They don’t aid in muscle repair, glycogen replenishment, or other physiological actions that elicit recovery.
You may wonder: why bother with a recovery run?! Isn’t an easy paced run the day after a hard workout just junk miles if it’s not helping me recover from a tough run? The answer: NO.
Related topic: The Best Dynamic Stretches for Running
Recovery Runs – Why They Matter
According to author Matt Fitzgerald (author of How Bad Do You Want It), “recovery” runs are important because they balance the two critical factors of your training/performance success: 1) running stress and 2) running volume.
Running stress occurs with workouts that significantly tax you, where you feel physically fatigued/exhausted when they’re over. Examples are: long runs, tempo runs, hill repeats, intervals, etc. Their purpose is to push your current fitness state in order to improve as a runner, and enable your body to better adapt to the fatigue next time (and at a future race).
Running volume is the other side of the coin. Essentially, the more miles you can run (within the limits your body can endure), the fitter you become; your performance improves. Running volume is closely related to running economy: the energy cost of running at a given speed. Tim Noakes, M.D., and author of Lore of Running, provides research that your running economy improves with increased mileage – up to the point of your volume limit.
Can’t Pick Just One…
The issue is that doing only one of the above components will not progress you to your full running potential. If all workouts are in the running stress category, you lack the volume required. Or, or you injure yourself attempting to do all hard workouts. Conversely, if all your runs are at a slower speed to maximize your running volume, you won’t get the physiological boost/improvements from the demanding running stress workouts.
You have to do both: demanding workouts (running stress) while having a sufficient amount of running volume to improve your fitness and running economy. Thus shorter, easy runs in your weekly training allows you to reach a higher running volume. And, given these recovery runs don’t require additional rest, they allow you to perform at a higher level on your key/demanding (running stress) workouts.
Here’s the thing: recovery runs don’t aid in your recovery from a tough workout. (They also likely will continue to be named recovery runs for some odd reason.) BUT, if you have a “recovery run” on your schedule, do it. They do serve a purpose beyond what is mentioned above (balancing running volume/stress)! Keep reading…
A Key Purpose
Unlike some of the demanding workouts where you’re often better rested at the start, you begin a recovery run in a pre-fatigued state. The key workout from the day prior stresses your system/muscles, and it’s highly unlikely you have yet to recover. So, you run on legs that aren’t fresh, even without running too hard or far.
Yesterday, I did an easy 5 miles, about 24 hours after my solo 17 mile run. As with many of my post high-intensity workouts, this recovery run didn’t exactly feel easy. I felt sluggish, a bit sore. According to Fitzgerald, that indicates the recovery run is accomplishing something real and productive – enough to enhance your fitness. Done properly, you increase your weekly mileage without taxing yourself too much to sabotage your key workouts.
Alas, recovery runs are often done too quick, or they are not done at all. Running too fast then sets up the following key workout to be sub-optimal. Or, the notion that the “easy junk miles” won’t help means they’re skipped altogether. Neither approach is helpful.
Recovery Runs Key Pointers
Here’s some key pointers to get the most out of your recovery runs. Plus, guidance for when they should be part of your routine.
- Wear your heart rate monitor. Your HR typically should be 65-70% of your max heart rate. Don’t have a HR monitor, then think conversation pace. If you can run while holding a conversation fairly easily, that’s a good sign. (Say your ABC’s out loud if solo to test yourself.) For some odd reason, running slower is sometimes as challenging as running hard. Yet, don’t fall into the trap of picking up the pace.
- During your “base training” (building mileage at conversational/moderate pace), recovery runs are normally not necessary. Once you incorporate demanding workouts/long runs, then they should be part of the mix.
- Any run typically done within 24 hours of a key workout (or the next day) should typically be a recovery run.
- You rarely will need two recovery runs between key workouts. A 1:1 ratio will normally suffice. (It’s also not advisable to do two tough workouts back to back either.)
- If you run 3-4 times per week, a recovery run is not typically necessary, assuming you have a day’s rest in between most of your runs (or it’s a cross-training day).
- It is completely fine to go SLOW on recovery runs. Do them at a pace that allows you to feel fresh for your next demanding workout. And while the runs are often “shorter,” it’s okay to go further as long as it doesn’t affect your next key workout. It may require some tinkering to know what that right distance is.
- For those doing double workouts (twice daily), the second workout should be a recovery run. (Again, 1:1 ratio.)
Note, the majority of information is sourced from an article Matt Fitzgerald originally wrote for Runner’s World.