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A Guide To the Recovery Run

The Ultimate Guide On The How, What, Why And When of Recovery Running

‘You wouldn’t flog a race horse’ and expect to see good results, so why would you expect the same of yourself?

Alright, you may not consider yourself a thoroughbred, thinking more intensity is needed more frequently to get the same results as those blessed with ‘superior’ running genes. However, your approach is correct, but your logic is a little skewed… You’re right in thinking you need to put more into your training than runners you may consider stronger than you, but it’s not more intensity.. but quite the opposite.

Runners, for the most part, hate running ‘easy’. A day spent barely getting out of breath whilst running is a day wasting an opportunity to increase your fitness, right?


But does this sound familiar to you?

Spending most days meandering between a steady slog and an effort with the handbrake held firmly on, never really getting out of 3rd gear.

You, my friend, need some recovery in your running diet – and I’ll explain exactly why the recovery run will soon become your most valued sessions of the week.

What are Recovery Runs?

Recovery runs, as the name suggests, are runs implemented specifically to help you recover from a previous hard session or race. After the hard run, the body needs time to recover from the stress placed on it the day before to allow the adaptations to take place.

Stress (Stimulus) + Rest (adaptation) = Growth

With that in mind, running too hard the day after a session or race doesn’t allow the body to adequately repair itself. Think of the recovery run as saving the progress you’ve made after levelling up in a game, without the recovery run, you’ll struggle to load up the progress you’ve made – if anything, it could eventually corrupt your file and set you back a few levels.

If you continue to run hard continuously without any recovery, eventually your central nervous system will become run-down, fatigued and fail to learn any new skills and abilities for the foreseeable – your CNS literally can’t figure out how to perform them, consequently no progression can be made.

Stress (Stimulus) + Stress (fatigue) = Deterioration

Not all stress is bad stress, it’s how we grow stronger and adapt. However, too much of a good thing can cause the opposite effect.

Training too hard with depleted glycogen stores will cause the body to break down enzymes and mitochondria to use protein as a fuel source to meet the energy demand required.

Why Do We Need Recovery Runs?

If we just need to rest, then why do we even need to run? Surely a full rest would be more beneficial?

In some cases, yes, such as when you have severe DOMs or illness. But in general, there are still plenty of benefits to be had whilst still jogging at relatively low intensities, such as:

  1. Increased Recovery Time: The time taken to recover can be decreased by several hours over taking the day completely off.
  2. Increased Blood Flow: Recovery runs help to increase blood flow to the muscles, which can aid in the repair and recovery process.
  3. Reduced Muscle Soreness: The low-intensity nature of recovery runs can help to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness, allowing you to recover more quickly.
  4. Improved Aerobic Fitness: While recovery runs are not designed to improve fitness, they can still provide a low-intensity workout that can help to maintain or improve your aerobic fitness through the development of increased volume and number of mitochondria and capillaries in the muscles.
  5. Mental Recovery: Recovery runs can also be beneficial mentally. The pressure to ‘run hard’ no longer exists! You can be satisfied in the knowledge you already provided all the stimulus possible in the run the day before. Instead, run easy and relaxed knowing there’s nothing more to be gained by running fast… but lot’s of advantages to running easy!
  6. Injury Prevention: Recovery runs can also help to prevent injury by promoting active recovery and allowing your body to adapt to the stresses of training. This occurs by the strengthening of joints, ligaments and tendons and help avoid overuse injuries overtime.
  7. Replenish Glycogen Stores: The body may need over 24 hours to fully restore glycogen levels. By running at an easy pace, the body can rely primarily on fat stores over stored glycogen, allowing the glycogen stores to refill for your next harder effort in the week.
  8. Helps Speed Up Glycogen Store Replenishment: Easy aerobic exercise helps uptake of glucose in the muscle, meaning glucose can be delivered to the muscles quickly
  9. Vitamins & Minerals Delivered More Efficiently: Vitamins and minerals are also better able to reach the muscles so that muscle tissue damage can be repaired.
  10. Removal of Waste Products: When running, the eccentric load of the running movement breaks down muscle which is increased during more strenuous running. Gentle running can help speed up the process of waste product removal.

As you can see, there’s lots of benefits to running very slow! But just how slow should you run?

How To Execute A Recovery Run

Recovery runs are typically performed at a very easy pace, usually much slower than your normal training pace. You can shuffle, you can move barely above walking pace, or you can move just slower than your normal running pace. In reality, it comes down to how it feels.

Of course, you can go off heart rate to determine if you’re in the recovery zone, which is anything less than 76% of your threshold pace if we’re being technical. Alas, it sort of defies the spirit of your recovery run to be worrying about paces and zones though. It’s time to switch off, relax and enjoy an easy jog!

Instead, use the below factors to determine if you’re running easy enough:

Effort level out of 10: 4/10 (give or take)
Breathing Rate: Comfortable – Barely above walking breathing rate
Talking Ability: Easy to speak
Intensity: Comfortable and relaxed

The goal is to keep your heart rate low and your breathing relaxed. The distance and duration of a recovery run will vary depending on the individual and the session, running intensity or race that preceded it. In general, recovery runs are shorter and of course slower than regular training runs, and they may last anywhere from 20-60 minutes.

It’s important to remember that recovery runs are not designed to improve your fitness or performance. Instead, they are a form of active recovery that can help you to recover more quickly and reduce your risk of injury. We also know that adaptations take place during time spent recovery running, but also beneficial stimulus too – it’s a session in it’s own right.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to consider just how much recovery is needed as no two workouts have the same effect on the body. As a guide, consider the below durations to implement recovery runs in your training:

Exercise Stressors:

Recovery Run: 8 hours
Lactate Threshold: 24 hours
Maximum Velocity Sprints: 30-40 hours
Anaerobic Maintenance or Capacity : 36-48 hours
Lactate Tolerance (Anaerobic work): 40-60 hours
Races: 2-3 days

When to do Recovery Runs

As a rule, every other day works! In some circumstances and for some races, different approaches to train may be required, but in general if you polarise your training enough between easy days and moderate to hard days, you will see quicker progression in your performances over running at the same paces each day.

With that said, not everyone needs to do 2 or 3 sessions a week. For some, focussing on one BIG session a week with the rest coming in lots of easy volume is a more productive pattern of training than the standard formula.

This is especially true in most elite trail and ultra runners, even Killian Jornet himself spends most of his weekly miles at low intensities… Kipchoge too! It’s all relative, of course, but out of the 13 runs Eluid performs each week, 10 he claims are easy.

If the greatest of all time in their running disciplines spend most of their running polarised between mostly easy running with a few harder days sprinkled in, then we should feel comfortable adopting the same approach too.

“But it’s just so boring!” I hear you, but there are ways to make them more interesting.

How To Level Up Your Recovery Runs

Try not to fall into the trap of running for the sake of running. Some days, you may only have the option of a less than scenic, out and back run, or using the treadmill after a long day at work. Sometimes, you just have to get the run done.

Where possible, use the recovery run as a chance to develop your running and strengths in other areas.

Improve Your Running Self-Schema:

Brake down your technical running abilities and rate them out of 10. How strong do you feel you are at descending technical drops? Cornering on a camber, running across scree? Your self-schema is how you expect you will think, feel or perform in certain situations.

Consider where you may feel like you’re ‘lacking’ technically during racing. This can just be one are or a few. Choose a route that you can string some of these factors together in one run. Whilst remembering that the primary goal of the run is to ‘recover’, spend your time jogging easy from one spot to another, practicing running over the factors you usually struggle at or avoid during harder intensities.

An example of this is running (where safe and permitted to do so) along bike trails, or an area containing varied technical areas of running. Steep drops, cambers, loose rocks and varied terrains along one or two trails turn your recovery run into a method of sparking the desired neuromuscular connections to run more technically whilst still spending 95% of your run getting the benefits of ‘recovery’.

Your body can’t learn anything new whilst fatigued is true. You can, however, improve your mind’s ability to tackle the more ‘sketchy’ sections of off-road running and build confidence at reduced speeds.

Think of this run as more like the runner’s version of visiting the local playground and having fun, but being able to gain all the positive recovery benefits whilst doing so.

Reduce Cortisol Levels, Elevate Those Endorphins:

You may think raising levels of cortisol is bad, so if harder running raises cortisol levels, surely that’s a bad thing too?

Not quite. Periodic levels of stress is a good thing. As discussed, it’s literally how we grow!

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone. This means it breaks down weaker muscle tissue to then rebuild as stronger tissue.

The problem is, your commute to work may raise cortisol levels. Work itself may release cortisol levels. Much of modern life, in a way, raises cortisol levels… see a pattern?

The last thing we need is constantly raised cortisol levels. Prolonged stress can lead to many negative health consequences. The good news is that easy running can reverse it.

Easy and relaxed running around your favourite trails can reverse the effects by releasing endorphins into the system, which in turn help to reduce levels of stress.

If you take anything from this blog, remember this; the easier you run your recovery runs, the more benefits you’ll gain. So relax, take it easy and be a happier and healthier runner for it.

About the author

Endurance State Coach, specialising in long distance and trail running disciplines. As an all round runner with a successful background in a variety of running disciplines, from 5k to Ultramarathons. Chris has competed internationally for Great Britain and England in various mountain running disciplines.

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