It may not come as much of a surprise, but recovery runs are really important.
But they’re also often disregarded.
The name itself is enough to make novice runners think they’re being trolled; a “recovery run” sounds ridiculous. It’s easy to see why: I mean, it’s a run you’re supposed to do when you’re done running to recover from the original act of running.
So it actually makes sense when you hear that most runners—especially distance runners—just skip it entirely.
However, recovery runs are really important.
Like really important.
What is a recovery run?
The reason they have a bum rap, beyond the name, is because of its actual function. Recovery runs are light, often brief runs that are done at the end of a run or the day after. You are not chasing a speed record or focused on intensity or distance. It’s really meant to be a pleasant, breezy aerobic exercise. To put a number to it, the successful recovery run would have you keep pace at roughly half of your maximum heart rate.
It may sound like running on a recovery day goes against conventional wisdom, but its benefits make the workout a wise one.
Why are recovery runs important?
First of all, we have to deal with the contention around recovery runs. There is the misnomer involving its name and the stigma that is erroneously attached to it.
Studies have proven that recovery runs do not actually speed up the recovery process. There are some who say that the recovery run helps flush the buildup of lactic acid. With the acid gone, theoretically, soreness will decrease while healing increases. Scientists claim that there is no direct correlation.
Hardcore runners sometimes wave it off as a practice for joggers (that feud is unending), but recovery runs are a necessity for hardcore runners.
To be more specific, if you’re running more than three times a week, you should be doing recovery runs.
It’s all about maintenance. Often, runners will feel stiffness and soreness in the hours after a run, and much more the day after. The soft recovery run allows those muscles to warm up a bit. On a biological and chemical level, the recovery run will release endorphins into the bloodstream, giving you a feel-good boost. The extra blood circulation to the legs will also give you some relief for the stiff or aching muscles.
On a more psychological level, recovery runs keep the act fun. As high-intensity interval training becomes more popular, workouts tend to become less fun and more about survival. Remember, you’re not trying to make the Special Forces. Recovery runs not only allow for easing muscle tension but can allow you to keep running fun.
The Benefits of Recovery Runs
Recovery runs offer what everyone who exercises wants: increased fitness. The key to increased fitness for runners involves endurance and power.
Naturally, you’re probably going to be sore and probably tired before your recovery run. It’s normal and essential to the exercise.
The lingering fatigue you feel during the recovery run is known as “pre-fatigue.” The pre-fatigue condition is the best time for a recovery run.
According to a study done at The University of Copenhagen at Denmark—they take their running seriously—training in a pre-fatigue state aide in the development of endurance and power output. In other words, you will be training your muscles to make you run harder for longer.
Of course, we know that overworking muscles can lead to plateauing or injury, but there is a fine balance to be found in recovery runs. Recovery runs tend to be at a slower pace, which substantially decreases the likelihood of injuring tired muscles. However, since they are still being used even at a decreased output, the brain will avoid using the fatigued muscle patterns that create the movement. Instead, fresh or less-exhausted muscle fibers will be used. Those muscle fibers grow, creating, in the longer-term, an increase in power and endurance for the runner.
I know, I know, that sounded technical and unnecessarily complicated. Let me use a metaphor:
Consider running as an asset. The muscle fatigue you feel is the money you’re investing. The recovery run is found money in your jacket pocket that you decide to add to said investment.
The Types of Recovery Runs
Like any run, there are multiple variations of doing the same thing. Of course, this is based entirely on fitness level, so that narrows the field a bit. Consider also that recovery runs are not meant to be intense and the different types of recovery runs decrease as well.
While they are meant to be looser in structure (we’ll get to that in a moment), there is a certain amount of pigeon-holing.
Recovery runs are meant to be more fun and easier on the body, involving the runner to go against their natural inclination to run as fast as possible for a long as possible. So, despite being looser, you’re also losing a certain amount of diversity of action.
However, we do have some options for you.
Option 1: Hopefully four or five hours after your high-intensity run, go for your recovery run. This should last for 25 to 30 minutes. Now, some people can run three to five miles in this time, even on a recovery run. This is, of course, dependent on personal capability and should not be used as a standard measurement for every single person. Again, recovery runs are meant to be lighter. Don’t overdo it.
Option 2: Going back to the “fun” aspect of recovery runs, this option allows you to run with a group. The common strategy here is to run with a group of people who generally aren’t as fast as you. I’m sorry runners, but that might mean interacting with joggers. They’re good people. Give them a chance. Again, this run should last 25 to 30 minutes.
Structuring a Recovery Run
Time and pace matter a great deal in these runs. As a matter of fact, some runners find recovery runs to be more stressful because it works best when you’re both paying more and less attention to the act. I know how contradictory that sounds, but I can explain.
When you run, your automatic response is to run as fast as you can for as long as you can—like a kid chasing the song of an ice cream truck in blazing July. Recovery runs are, instead, slower but not a snail’s pace. You’ll want to be in the range of half to 75% of your maximum heart rate during the recovery run. There are phone apps and other technological pieces that can aid you in the calculation during your run. The drawback to this is the fact we all have different resting and maximum heart rates. If you not as in-tune with the finer details of your heart rate, there’s another measure you can use.
It’s called the “talk test.”
The talk test is why we suggest recovery runs in groups (though calling up a friend can work just as well). It’s quite simple: if you can hold a conversation during a recovery run without gasping for your next breath then you’re at the right pace.
The only downside, is, obviously, your segmented attention. Please do have a conversation, and even feel free to enjoy your surroundings a bit more—this is supposed to be a more relaxed and fun run—but be watchful of your terrain. Nobody wants you to trip and injure yourself.
Once you’re set on pace, timing becomes a factor. As stated above, the best time for a recovery run is right after an intense run. You can make this recovery run part of the cooldown workout (running for about 20 minutes), though we would suggest this be a separate run four to five hours later, allowing for some general recovery time and to get your muscles into the pre-fatigued zone. Many devoted runners will run in the morning and then again at night; that night run would be the recovery run.
Now, we come to location. This is often overlooked since people have their established routines and like to stick to them. For a recovery run, you can stick to your favorite spot(s) as you like. However, to make it easier on your feet and muscles, we would suggest a different location for your recovery run.
Preferably, you would run on a softer, flatter surface (seriously, no inclines). Some even go for barefoot runs on grass. (Others will, after a recovery run, do barefoot lunges on grass for ten minutes at a clip. This is hardly mandatory but feel free if you have the desire and capability; again, be careful about overexertion.)
Now, if greater (yet also somehow lesser) self-regulation and geography wasn’t enough, we come to perhaps the biggest pain in the neck (or, more appropriately, the associated muscles being exercised): timing.
We’ve mentioned before that many devoted runners will schedule their recovery run four or five hours after that initial (likely morning) high-intensity run. We know this is not possible for everyone. However, the human body once in a while gives you a break. As a rule of thumb, you have a 24-hour window from the end of your high-intensity workout complete the recovery run. You will achieve maximum benefits from the workout during that time period, so in case two runs a day isn’t doable, you still have options.
For a more detailed schedule analysis, see below.
We mentioned earlier that recovery runs should be done if you are running more than three times a week. Since the most devoted runners tend to have a busy schedule trying to fit everything in, we thought we’d lend you a hand.
3x a week: If you’re running 3x a week, you don’t need to do a recovery run. However, if you’re planning on running more often, you have some options here. Recovery runs help in endurance and are a great stepping stone to the next level.
Generally, your 3x a week runs should be full, intense runs. A brief 10-minute recovery run could be added once a week as a cooldown. If that doesn’t work for you, use a rest day to do a 10-minute recovery run once a week, perhaps as a part of cross-training. This will help ease you into running more often if that is what your plan is.
4x a week: If you are a 4x a week runner, your recovery run should be done on the same day as the run, rather than on a rest day or a light day. Do not do a recovery run the day after a rest day. Remember the 24-hour rule: we want those muscles at their hot, pre-fatigued peak.
5x a week: At least one of these runs should be a recovery run.
6x a week: At least two of these runs should be a recovery run.
7x a week: As Michael Jordan said: “Stop it. Get some help.” Then again, he played in the 1997 Finals with the flu (or a massive hangover, depending on whose story you believe), so your mileage may vary.
Seriously, nobody should be running seven days a week.