What Is a Recovery Run? Everything You Need to Know
“Recovery run” may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s actually one of the most common training strategies among serious runners.
While everything from speed work to weight training may have a place in your regimen, if you leave out recovery runs, it’s only a matter of time before you plateau, burn out, or get injured.
What Is a Recovery Run?
When most people feel a little worn out after an especially intense day of training, they allow themselves a day of R&R on the couch.
But if you’re a serious runner, the thought of skipping even a single day of training may be too much to bear.
That’s where recovery runs come in. They’re shorter, slower versions of your normal runs that are meant for days when going all-out probably isn’t for the best. These more manageable runs are meant to help you recover without forcing you to skip training altogether.
The Benefits of Recovery Runs
Before I get into the how of recovery runs, let’s talk about the why a bit more.
Because even if you absolutely love running, doing so when your body is begging for rest probably feels at least a little counterintuitive.
So, why go for recovery runs?
It’s not just because, let’s face it, we runners don’t like sitting still.
It’s because recovery runs may play an active role in helping your body get back to 100% faster than if you stayed off your favorite trail or track for the day.
But here’s the thing…
The Science Is Still Out on Recovery Runs
Actual data supporting the benefits of recovery runs is still lacking. This is one of those “tried-and-true” techniques that hardcore runners swear by, but we’ll have to wait and see if science eventually bears it out someday.
That being said, here are the perceived benefits of recovery runs that have made them such a staple for so many runners.
Recovery Runs Will Increase Blood Flow to Your Muscles
Whenever you regularly push any of your muscles to their limits, those muscles and their connective tendons are going to form small tears.
Usually, this is no big deal.
If your goal is to strengthen your muscles, these tears are essential. They tell your brain that you need stronger muscles going forward and your body responds by building them.
However, if you’re a regular runner who does this again and again, those tears can easily become irritated or even inflamed. These conditions hinder the kind of recovery you want. Instead of getting stronger, you might earn yourself a common injury like a shin splint – or even something far worse.
But it turns out that going for easier runs can have the exact opposite effect by working these muscles and tendons in a way that attracts restorative blood flow. These tears heal faster, your body creates the new muscle necessary, and you can get back to running.
Recovery Runs Will Loosen Up Your Muscles
While taking time off your feet may feel great in the moment, you’ve probably experienced the discomfort that comes when you finally get off the couch and try to use them again.
Your very sore muscles make it very clear they want nothing to do with it.
This happens because inactivity allows your muscles – especially your hamstrings and calves – to contract and tighten up.
A nice slow run will keep this from happening, so you have an easier time going for a normal run in the near future.
Recovery Runs May Flush Lactic Acid
Just like these easier runs may bring blood to your strained muscles, they may also help bring lactic acid away from them.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, when your body is low on oxygen and needs to transform glucose into energy, lactic acid is the byproduct. Unfortunately, lactic acid can cause cramps, fatigue, and even muscle pain.
You know when your legs feel like they weigh a ton and each step hurts? That’s from lactic acid.
A low-level run may help flush it out, so you can get back to using your legs pain-free.
Recovery Runs May Help You Fight Through Fatigue
Do you ever go to put your shoes on and realize, “You know what? I don’t actually want to run today”?
That might be a sign that you’re fatigued.
Often, the best remedy is to simply get more sleep.
But that doesn’t mean you need to quit running altogether. One study we do have that may support the benefits or recovery runs comes from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. When researchers there looked at skeletal muscle adaptation, they found that working out when fatigued can actually improve an athlete’s endurance and physical output.
In other words, you don’t need to go all-out, but if you can get yourself to do a recovery run when you’re tired, you may not get tired as often. In fact, you may even find that your normal runs don’t feel as demanding as they once did.
Recovery Runs Are an Easy Way to Build Your Aerobic Capacity
One of the many reasons to regularly run every week is that greater training volume leads to better aerobic capacity – which is “the maximal amount of oxygen your body can consume during maximal intensity exercise.”
The better that gets, the more athletic you can be.
If you feel too fatigued to push your body as hard as usual, at least going for a recovery run will help keep that training volume from slumping completely. Every little bit helps when it comes to improving your aerobic capacity, so even running only a few miles is worth it.
How to Do a Recovery Run
There are no hard-and-fast rules to doing recovery runs, but the following advice will help get you started.
Shoot for only about 50-75% of your normal running cadence. The first time you do this, I’d keep it closer to 50% just to be safe.
This can be quite difficult to stick to at first. Even if your body is aching or fatigued, your mind may still want to go at your normal pace. So, stay focused on going nice and slow.
I find that using the talk test is really helpful for this when doing recovery runs. Basically, if you can’t complete a full sentence out loud without issue, slow down a bit more. If you run with a partner, you should have no problem having a conversation with them when recovery is the goal.
As far as how long these runs should be, shoot for about 30 minutes at this comfortable pace the first couple of times. See how you feel during the run and how your body reacts the next day.
You can always increase the duration going forward.
And that’s about it.
Like I said, there are no stringent guidelines with recovery runs. You can modify yours as you see fit. Just don’t get tempted into turning what’s supposed to be a nice, easy run into an all-out effort.
Schedule Your Recovery Runs to Avoid Injury and Reach Your Goals
Finally, while you can go for a recovery run whenever you feel the need, I also encourage you to schedule them just like you do any of your other runs.
This will make it easier to go for them when your pride might try to convince you it’s worth pushing through the pain.
Recovery runs should be just as much a part of your training as the food you eat, the stretches you do, and, yes, even the cool running sunglasses you wear.