Being a runner doesn’t mean you have to run hard and fast every time you head out that door!
Yes, there are times when you should be running hard and fast – pedal to the metal and all in. You need these hard runs when you are training for a race or aiming for a certain goal.
And if you insist on hating running, then these might be the runs to focus your resentment on.
But there’s no need to hate every run! Not all runs are created equal. They don’t all need to be hard and fast. There are times when you should slow it down, relax and run at an easy pace.
This kind of run is called a recovery run, and you need it.
Recovery runs are just as important as your hard runs.
What is a recovery run?
A recovery run may sound rhetorical at first, since I am telling you to recover from a run by running, of all things. I know, I get it. It’s almost laughable.
But hear me out. There’s a method behind my madness.
And there’s a purpose for that recovery run.
A recovery run is a slow and easy run, following a much harder, faster run.
In theory, a recovery run helps to reduce soreness and muscle fatigue. Many coaches believe a recovery run will flush out lactic acid that has built up in your muscles from a hard run.
Once this lactic acid is gone, the soreness should subside, and your muscles can begin to heal.
Many coaches believe this, and many runners swear by it.
However, there is no scientific evidence that this actually happens.
On the other hand, there is evidence that a recovery run will make you a better, stronger runner, through fitness adaptation.
Fitness adaptation occurs when your body adjusts to working out at a higher, intensified level. This occurs, not based on how long you work out, but on how long you work out after the point of exhaustion.
You will experience fitness adaptation when you run longer than normal, or when you run harder than you normally run. This is because your body is being pushed beyond its limit.
But you can also achieve fitness adaptation through a recovery run, because you run the entire run in a state of exhaustion.
In layman’s terms
A recovery run is usually a light and easy run, following a hard running workout.
Recovery runs follow tempo runs, intervals, or a long run.
And they can help you to recover faster by keeping your muscles loose.
Your recovery run should be shorter than your base run. So, if you typically run three or four miles every time you head out that door, your recovery run should be two or three.
And they are slow. Oh, so slow. Like, stop and smell the roses slow.
How do recovery runs work?
A study from the University of Copenhagen found that the brain creates shortcuts when you are tired.
When your muscles are fatigued, your brain tries not to use the tired muscle fibers to push you on. Instead, it will engage fresh or new muscle fibers to keep you moving.
These muscle fibers are generally not used as often because they are not the preferred muscle fibers used in normal running conditions.
But drastic times call for drastic measures.
Your brain will pull in these fresh recruits in order to save on the exhausted fibers.
In doing so, it actually trains your body to run past the point of exhaustion by strengthening and training the new muscle fibers to take over.
This, in turn, creates power and endurance.
Benefits of a recovery run
Recovery runs help you to become a better, stronger runner, by teaching you to run past the point of exhaustion.
This helps you to increase endurance and develop your aerobic system. Your aerobic system uses oxygen to produce energy.
This is why a recovery run is so important – it trains your body to efficiently produce energy even when you are tired.
But there are so many more benefits to slowing it down after a hard run!
- Increase the blood flow to your muscles: This loosens you up after a hard run. If you don’t move around, you’ll get stiff and sore.
- Improve your running form: This loosens you up after a hard run. If you don’t move around, you’ll get stiff and sore.
- Improve aerobic fitness: This basically means improving the ability for you to run for a longer amount of time, sometimes referred to as running base
- Release endorphins into the bloodstream: This literally makes you happy! Endorphins are those happy chemicals that get released every time you exercise, but more so during a fun recovery run.
Yes, recovery runs challenge you to run when you are exhausted. Running when your body is already tired from your last run increases your endurance.
But recovery runs also help you to enjoy running more! They are fun, playful little runs that have the added bonus of making you a better, stronger runner.
When is a recovery run appropriate?
Not all runs should be hard runs, and not all runs should be recovery runs. A recovery run is appropriate only under certain conditions.
If used right, recovery runs can prevent you from overtraining.
Follow these general guidelines when considering a recovery run:
Recovery runs are only needed if you run more than four times a week
If you run less than four times a week, then you don’t need a recovery run. Your rest days and your cross training days provide ample recovery.
If you run four or more times a week, consider adding a recovery run.
If you run four times a week, then your 4th run should be a recovery run IF you run it the day after your 3rd run. If there is a rest day between the 3rd and 4th run, then the 4th run does not have to be a recovery run.
If you run five times a week, one should be a recovery run. And if you run six times a week, two runs should be recovery runs.
Recovery runs are not needed if you are not adding running mileage
When you are running at a consistent pace and a consistent number of miles, you rarely require recovery runs since you are rarely pushing yourself to high intensity.
When you start adding on the miles or amping up the intensity, you should then add recovery runs.
If you are feeling extra sore, tired, or fatigued, you should do a recovery run
This lingering feeling of exhaustion is known as “pre-fatigue” and is exactly when you should do a recovery run, as long as you are not injured.
If you just ran a high-intensity or generally hard run
You should perform a recovery run within 24 hours. Some runners will use a recovery run as a cool down after a hard run. Others will run it within a couple of hours.
And some will wait for five to six hours, and then run it. It works well to use the morning for the hard run and the afternoon or evening for the recovery run.
What is a good recovery run pace
Your pace during a recovery run matters.
If you run too fast, you are not allowing your body to recover.
However, there is no exact pace that you should try to hit. Some people would consider an 8 ½ minute mile to be recovering, while others would find that to be a hard run.
Your recovery pace should not feel like a challenge.
You know you have a good recovery pace if you can easily hold a conversation without panting while you are running. If you are alone, just try reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while you are running. If you pant, slow down.
If you train with a heart rate monitor, you should aim for 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. And if you don’t run with a heart rate monitor, an easy way to find the right recovery pace is to slow your pace down by 60 or 90 seconds.
This means if you run a 10-minute mile, you should slow down to an 11-minute or even an 11 ½-minute mile for your recovery run.
All in all, you should really be able to focus on your surroundings, kick back and enjoy your run!
Remember, a recovery run is a slow, easy run performed after a long, hard, or fast run.
Recovery runs help you to build endurance and burn energy more efficiently, even when you are tired.
They also loosen you up after a long or hard run. If you veg after a long run, you’ll get sore and stiff! Recovery runs keep that from happening.
You should add a recovery run to your routine if you run more than four times a week, are increasing your mileage or are training for a race.
When running, aim for a recovery pace of 60 to 90 seconds slower than your normal running pace. You should be able to hold a conversation without panting.
And remember, recovery runs are supposed to be fun! They put the joy back into running. So, the next time you muscle through a long, excruciating hard run, reward yourself with a short, playful recovery run.
Your body will thank you!