Recovery Runs: How and Why to Do Them

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If you’re following a training plan or working towards a race, you’ll likely have encountered the idea of recovery runs. These are short, slow runs, usually done after a medium-intensity workout.

While running is exercise and recovery is thought of as rest, you can consider a recovery run to be “restful exercise.”

Incorporating them into your schedule can help you to keep up your fitness without overdoing it… And also without that restless feeling of sitting around doing nothing.

This is our guide to recovery runs, including what boxes a run needs to tick to be considered a recovery run and when you should do them for maximum effect.

What Is a Recovery Run?

Recovery runs are done at a significantly slower pace or a much shorter distance than your regular runs.

A recovery run is one of the many types of runs in an effective running plan or program. While you’re still going for a run, it falls more into “active recovery” than actual training.

Most of the time, this type of run will follow a high-intensity run in your training program. This means recovery runs are usually done in a “pre-fatigued” state before your muscles fully recover from the previous workout.

A recovery run is a way of stretching those muscles, getting the blood flowing to help them recover faster, and keeping up your cardiovascular fitness… Without the usual toll that a run takes on your body.

Active Recovery vs Passive Recovery

Passive recovery includes all the “non-exercise” forms of recovery. These could include heat and cold therapy, percussive or regular massage, and foam rolling.

Active recovery includes activities that are considered to be exercise. These get your heart rate up and increase your blood pressure and circulation. Recovery runs are considered to be active recovery, just like yoga, an easy bike ride, or going for a walk.

Why Are Recovery Runs Important?

Overtraining is a very real enemy! It’s crucial to note that recovery runs won’t necessarily accelerate your recovery—but they do help reduce the chances of overtraining, which is an important factor.

The day after your harder runs, your muscles are tight and tired. A recovery run allows you to get in some movement, burn some calories, and most importantly, warm up those muscles so the stiffness can ease.

You won’t be breaking records on these runs, but you will improve blood circulation and get endorphins flowing, which has both physical and mental benefits.

Plus, it’s an excellent way to build on a running habit rather than taking a day off after hard runs if you’re new to it.

How Are Recovery Runs Different From Easy Runs?

Technically, an easy run and a recovery run are the same in terms of pace and heart rate. The difference comes with distance and intention.

Because recovery runs serve the purpose of warming up the muscles and helping to flush out metabolic waste, they should be around 20 to 25 minutes long. Anything over 30 minutes will start to produce more metabolic waste, making the recovery aspect pointless.

On the other hand, easy runs can be longer in both distance and time. The purpose is to build endurance and aerobic fitness, so you don’t need to worry about limiting your run time or distance.

Recovery runs are typically performed once or twice a week, specifically the day after a hard or long run. Easy runs are usually scattered into a training program three to four times weekly.

When Should You Do a Recovery Run?

Not every plan includes recovery runs, so it might be up to you to add them into your schedule. Recovery runs are usually done the day after a long or hard interval training session.

This means they usually occur during a training program once or twice a week. You may also do a recovery run after a heavy weight lifting session—especially if you’ve trained legs—or after a race.

When you’re in the off-season or not training hard, you might not need recovery runs. But when you’re actively training with a goal, then you should strategically include them as active recovery after your harder sessions.

Benefits of Recovery Runs

Recovery runs can be very beneficial. They’re not just “relaxed time”—they have specific benefits that can improve your overall running performance.

Enhances Recovery Process

These relaxed runs do an excellent job of getting blood flowing to the legs. This means oxygen and nutrients are circulating through the tissues, and metabolic waste is more easily removed, enhancing recovery.

It’s worth noting that there’s no scientific evidence that recovery runs help you recover faster, but everybody recovers differently. Physically, improved circulation in the area is a benefit.

Reduces the Risk of Injury

Recovery runs are the perfect time to work on your running form. The lower-intensity movement is the ideal place to identify and work on flaws in your form. It may also be easier to identify potential muscle imbalances as you can really work on activating that mind-muscle connection during these runs.

Regularly being aware of and working on your form will serve you well regarding injury prevention. Good form lowers your risk of injury significantly.

Improves Your Aerobic Base

These runs are usually performed in heart rate zone 1 or 2, which is where your aerobic energy system is activated. Low-intensity runs like these help you to improve your aerobic capacity, also known as your VO2 max.

This is the amount of oxygen your body can take in at one time and use for exercise. Regular recovery runs increase this base and ultimately improve performance in the long run.

Taps Into Your Body’s Natural Energy Reserves

Typically, exercise in heart rate zones 1 and 2, your body burns the fat stored in the body. Recovery runs train your body to use your own fat reserves, which helps you become more accustomed to burning your fat for energy rather than waiting for carbs.

This can serve you well in the long run. After time, your body will begin to use its own fat more efficiently during long runs, reducing fatigue and improving your body’s fat-burning capabilities.

Gives You a Mental Boost

You can feel good about putting time and effort into recovery with recovery runs! They’re a great way to give you a bit of an endorphin boost and break up the focused, driven runs that you’ll be doing in your training plan.

They’re also a nice opportunity to focus on mindful running, which can help improve your form, strengthen the mind-muscle connection, and help you appreciate the running experience.

Consistency and Volume

Recovery runs add to your weekly mileage and help you to build and maintain a solid running habit. Instead of skipping a day to recover, you can still get in a run, enjoy yourself, and tick one more run off your calendar.

How to Do a Recovery Run

Ready to start incorporating recovery runs, if you aren’t already? Here’s how to do a recovery run effectively.

Pick Flat Terrain for Your Run

Adding inclines or running on trails will get your heart rate up too much for a recovery run. Stick to flat, predictable ground. This will also reduce your chance of injury.

You can also perform a recovery run on a treadmill if you’d like. This is a good option because you can set your pace and stick to it, and it’s also easier on the joints and muscles.

Keep Your Run Short

You should be running for 20 to 25 minutes at the most. Don’t be tempted to go for longer, or you’ll be shifting over from a recovery run into easy run, which will defeat the purpose of doing a recovery run.

Recovery Run Pace

As a general rule, your pace for a recovery run should be between 50 and 70 percent of your 5K pace. This equals a minute to 2 minutes slower per mile than your usual 5K pace, which will likely feel very slow.

If you don’t know your 5K pace yet, you can work out a good pace by using the talk test, judging your perceived effort, or training within heart rate zones.

Do the Talk Test

If you can hold a full conversation while running without needing to stop and gasp for breath, you’re running at a good recovery pace. Your slow pace shouldn’t be affecting your breathing much at all.

Running Intensity

This can be difficult to estimate initially, but over time you’ll get better at judging. If you feel like you’re running on 2 or 3 out of 10 in terms of the effort you’re putting in, it’s good for a recovery run.

Training With Heart Zones

If you have a heart rate monitor or a smartwatch that tracks your heart rate zones, you can use these to find your perfect recovery run intensity. Your heart rate should be between 60 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Typically, these are zone 1 and zone 2 on a heart rate zone scale. If you aren’t sure of your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220, and this will give you a basic idea.

Then, work out 60 to 70 percent of that number, and that’s the range in which your heart rate should be sitting while you’re doing your recovery run.

Listen to Your Body

If your body tells you to run faster or farther, ignore it! But for everything else, pay attention to how your body is responding.

If you feel pain anywhere, it’s best to stop and rest. You can still get injured during recovery runs, so listening to your body is essential.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Recovery runs might sound simple, but a few small mistakes can ruin their effectiveness. Avoid these ones to maximize the results of your recovery runs!

Running Too Hard

Your recovery runs are slower than your easy runs. A good rule of thumb is if you feel like you’re running too slowly, it’s probably right for a recovery run.

You should be able to have a full conversation while running. Also, be careful not to overcompensate on distance if you’re running slowly. Stick to a slow pace and a short distance—slower and shorter than you’re comfortable with!

Not Getting Enough Sleep

Proper rest is a critical part of effective recovery. This is when your body repairs the damage done by intense exercise, so you can do all the recovery runs you want… But if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night. You may have to adjust your sleeping environment to make this possible. Ensure it’s a comfortable temperature, there’s no noise that could disrupt your sleep and no artificial light to interrupt your circadian rhythm.

Not Warming Up

Don’t think that just because a recovery run is easy and slow, you don’t need to warm your muscles up first! This is one of the most common mistakes, and it can make you more likely to get injured.

Just 5 minutes of light walking and some dynamic stretching before your recovery run will make a huge difference. Do some static stretches when you’re done and walk for 5 minutes to give your body time to settle.

When Should You Skip the Recovery Run?

In some cases, a recovery run could actually be more detrimental than helpful. Avoid the recovery run if you:

  • Ran a marathon or an ultra the day before. At this point, a recovery run could increase muscle damage and cause dangerous complications. Rather walk and take a few days to recover properly.
  • Have a running-related injury. Rather choose a form of cross-training that gives your injured muscle a break.
  • Are sick. Avoid the temptation to run on these days, as you might end up overdoing it and causing worse illness. Rest until your below-the-neck symptoms have been gone for a day or two.

Can I Incorporate Cross-Training on Recovery Days?

You should have at least one full rest day per week. That means no activity at all, other than your regular daily activities. On these days, you should skip the cross-training.

However, on active recovery days—any day in which you’re not running except for your full rest day—you can do whatever cross-training you like.

You can also incorporate cross-training on the same day as your recovery run if you like, as long as it doesn’t put a lot of strain on the legs and it keeps your heart rate at about 30 to 60 percent of your maximum.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.