Rest and recovery are as important as running when you’re training for a race or even just trying to improve your fitness.
While it can be frustrating to take a day off or to go for a recovery run instead of your usual run, actively taking part in recovery-promoting activities can have a positive effect on your overall health and fitness.
Some runners avoid doing recovery runs because it’s difficult to slow down their pace. But it’s important to learn how to run slow on recovery runs to avoid overtraining and reduce the risk of injuring yourself.
Here are our top tips for maintaining an easy run pace during recovery runs, as well as why you should be including these kinds of runs in your training schedule.
What is a Recovery Run?
A recovery run is a run at a very easy pace. It should be even slower than a normal easy run for you.
When you first start doing recovery runs, they may feel unnatural and even silly to do because they seem to be absurdly slow.
It may feel like it’s just one step up from a walking pace. You’re at the right pace if you can hold a full conversation while running, without being out of breath or gasping for words.
If you prefer to assess your performance in terms of running data, during a recovery run your heart rate should be at 65 percent or less than your heart rate reserve (HRR). Calculate your HRR by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. Your heart rate should be at 65 percent or less of that number when doing a recovery run.
Recovery runs are usually done the day after you’ve run a hard workout. Don’t assume that because you’re running slowly you won’t be getting any benefit. Because your body is still fatigued from your previous run, it’s working hard even though your pace is relaxed.
Beginners who have yet to develop a significant pace per mile may not find much difference between their daily runs and a recovery run pace. But experienced runners will find the difference striking and possibly even difficult to maintain.
Why Do Recovery Runs?
Recovery runs are a way to keep active and maintain your fitness on days where you’re already fatigued. They are also great the day before a big race when you don’t want to tire yourself out.
If you’re recovering from an injury or illness or if you aren’t feeling great, recovery runs will help you come back stronger. They are also good if you’re feeling unmotivated or under high stress.
Even though they’re at a very easy pace, recovery runs do have plenty of benefits other than just getting you to move when you don’t feel like it.
Recovery runs add extra miles or time—as well as aerobic volume—to your training without fatiguing you or putting more strain on your muscles. Even an easy run helps to increase blood flow to the muscles, which can reduce the pain of yesterday’s run—DOMS—and help you to recover faster.
Because you may need to work on slowing your pace and maintaining a slower pace throughout the entirety of your run, recovery runs can also help to improve your focus and mental toughness. They’re also an ideal time to work on improving your running form.
Where Do Runners Go Wrong With Recovery Runs?
The biggest mistake runners make is to run at a pace that’s too fast. It can be difficult, both physically and mentally, to slow your pace to barely more than a walk and maintain it for an entire run.
If you’re running too fast, it becomes a workout rather than a recovery run. Then you’re getting the slight benefits of a low-intensity workout, but missing out on the real benefits of a recovery run.
If you’re uncomfortable running at such a slow pace, you’re probably going at the right speed. Anything more than that, and you’re most likely running too fast.
How to Pace a Recovery Run
If you work on pace rather than HRR or just going by how you feel, you should be running at a pace of between 50 and 75 percent of your average 5k race pace. This is a good 2 to 2 ½ minutes slower per mile than your usual pace.
For example, if you run an 8-minute mile, you should be aiming for 10 minutes per mile on your recovery run.
Other Ways to Help You Run Slow
Until you get used to running at this speed, you will need to monitor yourself consistently to ensure that you’re staying on pace.
There are a variety of methods you can use to help keep you running at the right—slow—pace.
If you own a smartwatch with an HRM or a separate heart rate monitor, you might want to monitor your heart rate. You will need to calculate your heart rate reserve and work out what heart rate equals roughly 65 percent of that.
For example, if your resting heart rate is 60 and your maximum heart rate is 180, your HRR is 120. You want your heart rate to be around 65 percent of this—which is around 78 beats per minute. If it gets higher than this, you’re going too fast and should try to slow your pace until your HR gets back down to your goal.
If you don’t own a watch or HR monitor, you can always use the Talk Test to assess your level of exertion. You should be able to hold a conversation easily without being out of breath. If you can’t say a full sentence properly without stopping for breath, you’re going too fast.
If you have tried recovery runs and tried these methods but you’re still struggling to slow your pace down enough, you can always do some form of cross-training instead of doing a recovery run.
Cycling, walking, swimming, or a low-intensity workout like the elliptical are good options. This keeps you active without causing further fatigue.
When to Use the Recovery Run
Recovery runs should be a part of every serious runner’s training. But timing is important. Although they can be beneficial whenever you use them, there are certain times that recovery runs will be more beneficial than others.
The day after a hard, intense run or a particularly hard cross-training session is the ideal time for a recovery run. This is called running in a pre-fatigued state, which means that your body is still fatigued from the previous day’s exercise.
It can be easy to overtrain the day after a hard workout, which is why a recovery run is a perfect activity to keep you active without overdoing it.
You can also do a recovery run the day before a long or hard run. Doing a run at your regular pace can fatigue you before the next day’s run, so a recovery run is an ideal way to still get exercise in without overworking. This is commonly known as a shakeout run.
Highly experienced runners may choose to do a recovery run on the same day as a race, in the evening if the race was in the morning. This depends on one’s fitness level and how comfortable one is doing two runs in one day, even if the second one is very easy.
If you’ve taken some time off from running after a race, recovery runs will be a valuable tool to help you build up to your previous level of fitness at the right pace. It may take your body some time to adjust to being active again, and recovery runs can help you to balance higher intensities with active recovery.
If you are under a high amount of stress or you haven’t been sleeping well, running at your usual full-speed pace may not be advisable. If you’re physically and mentally fatigued, you may not be concentrating on your run and doing a high-intensity run can lead to injury if your form is off or even if you just aren’t watching where you’re going.
In these cases, recovery runs can keep you active, help you get fresh air and vitamin D, and help to stimulate the immune system, while being low-intensity enough to prevent you from becoming injured.
When Not to Go On a Recovery Run
If you have a big injury and your doctor has advised you to rest, then you should not attempt a recovery run even though the pace is extremely slow.
In these cases, you should rest for the required amount of time recommended by your physician. You can do cross-training that doesn’t affect the injured limb or joint. Once the time has passed, you can begin to incorporate recovery runs.
Recovery runs should be built into your weekly mileage. If you have already accomplished your weekly mileage and you aren’t running a race, then there’s no need to do a recovery run and you would get more benefit from just resting.
Don’t Neglect Other Recovery Methods
Recovery runs are a valuable tool that can keep you active when you might otherwise be doing nothing. Using them well can actually lead to an increase in your pace and you can gain many benefits, including improving your aerobic volume and mental toughness.
But it’s important not to forget about other types of recovery. Dynamic stretching, yoga, using a foam roller, a sports massage, cold showers, or using compression gear can all help promote recovery, on top of recovery runs.