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Recovery Runs: How and Why to Do Them

One of the key principles of any good training program is variety. It might seem like getting in shape should be all about going out and putting in the long miles, or the hard interval workouts. These have their clear benefits, but it is just as important to give your body time to rebound from those hard efforts.

This is the gist of recovery runs. Don’t know what they are? Not to worry. We’ve got you covered!

In this article, we’ll discuss recovery runs, why they are important, how to do them, and tips on making them effective. They should be a key part of your running routine.

man doing recovery run in park

What are recovery runs?

In short, a recovery run is a slow, short run that you complete within 24 hours of a hard run. You’re not trying to make a time goal or find the most challenging course to run on. Instead, recovery runs are supposed to be comfortable, relaxing runs.

Because recovery runs challenge you to run in a pre-fatigued state—meaning that you have lingering fatigue from your previous hard run—they will increase your fitness because you’re encouraging your body to work even when it’s tired.  

Why should you do them?

Recovery runs have a host of benefits. While it doesn’t sound very glamorous to go for an “easy” run, you actually can gain a lot from them. Here are just a few benefits!

Teach Your Body to Use Fat as Energy Source

As you incorporate more recovery runs into your training program, you’ll be conditioning your body to use fat as its main energy source rather than carbohydrates. Once you’ve trained your body this way, you’ll be able to run longer without refueling.

Teach Your Body to Work More Efficiently

When you slow down your pace, you’re teaching your body to better integrate your muscles with your aerobic cardio fitness, making them work more efficiently. After you teach your body this, you’ll be able to run with less effort on fast days and it will help you sustain your pace over longer distances.

Teach Your Mind to Push Hard at the End

Slow runs are the time to run with friends, especially if you have a friend who is slightly slower than you. Knowing that you’re helping someone else become a better runner by serving as his or her motivation is a huge confidence booster.

Plus, having to spend more time on your feet can teach you how to deal with physical discomfort. On race day, when you’re getting to the end, you’ll know you can make it to the finish line.

How often should you do recovery runs?

Generally speaking, you should do a recovery run within 24 hours of a hard run. That means that if you did a hard interval training workout on Tuesday, your next run should be a recovery run on Wednesday.

If you are a very serious runner, you can do a hard run in the morning followed by a recovery run in the evening. In fact, this is exactly what many elite runners will do to pack in as many miles as possible.

You can also schedule recovery runs when you simply feel tired. Sleepless night? Dial back the training effort. Been a little bit too hardcore with your training plan and feeling exhausted? Take a step back to refocus by doing a recovery run.

If you run more than three times a week, you will almost certainly want to include at least one of these short, easy efforts. By contrast, if you’re running just two to three times a week, your recovery days can be cross-training days.

If you run four times a week, you’ll need a recovery run if you’re running the day after a hard workout. If you run five times a week, you will definitely need at least one recovery run, and if you run six or more times a week, you should include at least two recovery runs in your training plan.

Make sure that you’re not running too far on your recovery days. Somewhere between 3-5 miles is a safe distance. Any distance longer than that will lose the recovery benefits of an easy day.

Also keep in mind that doing a recovery runs means you should skimp on other types of recovery. Foam rolling, stretching, massage and massage guns, and sleep (don’t forget sleep!) should still be a regular part of your routine.

women in park doing recovery run

What are tips for effective recovery runs?

There are a variety of things to keep in mind in order to have an effective recovery run, but the biggest component is making sure that your pace is slow enough. Faster paces are not always better – this is a very common running mistake. When you are running for recover, slow down. Wayyyy down.

You have to keep the purpose of a recovery run in mind. It’s to give your body the time to recuperate after you pushed really hard the day before. Always keep this goal in mind. However, there are several other components of recovery runs to consider, which we have included below.

Pace: How slow should you run?

Slower is always better for recovery. Many running experts say that there is no pace that is too slow. A good way to know if you’re running too fast is to use the “talk test.” If you can’t hold a conversation, you’re going too hard.

Another way to check your pace is to monitor your heart rate. Coach Pete Rea suggests that runners should keep their easy days under 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. 

That means that if you’re a 20-year-old with a max heart rate of 200 bpm, your heart rate during recovery runs should be 150 – 156 bpm or less. If it’s over that, you’re going too fast. It can take some getting used to once you see exactly how slow this effort is.

If figuring out your heart rate is too complicated, just remember that you should be running roughly 60 to 90 seconds per mile slower than your normal training pace. That means that if you normally train at an 8:00 pace, your recovery runs should be at least at a 9:00 pace. Or slower!

But remember, there really is not a pace that is too slow for a recovery run. It’s better to err on the side of too slow rather than too fast.

When NOT to do recovery runs

Although recovery runs are great for recuperating after hard days, there are times when you don’t need to do recovery runs. For example, there is no need to do recovery runs two consecutive days.

Similarly, you don’t need to do them after easy runs, rest days, or if you’re not incorporating harder runs into your training. Basically, if you don’t need to recover from a hard run, you don’t need to do a recovery run.

How to do recovery runs properly

In order to get the maximum benefit of recovery runs, you need to make sure that you’re doing them properly. We already covered going at a nice, slow, easy pace, but there are some other things you should keep in mind.

Pick a flat course

This is not the time to go and attack hills, as they are challenging and will raise your heart rate even if you’re not pushing hard. You should also try to run on a softer surface. Asphalt and concrete are hard on the feet and knees. Consider trying grass, sand (if you live by the beach), or dirt.

Don’t worry about pace

In fact, it might even be better if you don’t have your GPS watch with you (unless you want to make sure that you’re not going too fast). It’s okay to include a little bit of walking, hiking, and taking time to smell the flowers during your recovery run. We checked with the experts, and your miles definitely still count, even if you’re not wearing your watch.

Make sure you can hold a conversation

Recovery runs are a great time to catch up with friends or maybe run with people who are typically slower than you. This is not the time to go all out. Instead, you need to be able to pass the “talk test.” If you can’t hold a conversation or say the Pledge of Allegiance, you’re going too fast.

Take the time to practice good running form

Because you’re not trying to meet a pace or time goal and/or push yourself really hard, recovery runs are a great time to take a step back and practice good running form. 

Make sure that you’re looking forward, landing midfoot, keeping your feet pointed straight, relaxing your hands and shoulders, keeping good posture, and keeping your arms and hands at your side.

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner