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What Are Recovery Runs And How Do You Do Them?

Every runner has their favorite type of workout. For me, it’s fartlek runs. For others, it may be interval sessions or the weekly long run.

However, very few runners will cite recovery runs as their favorite workout types. In fact, recovery runs may be one of the most underrated workouts in a recreational runner’s arsenal.

But what are recovery runs, and how can you integrate them into your training?

Read on to find out.

In this article, we’ll explore when you should do recovery runs and how to incorporate them into your training plan.

What Are Recovery Runs?

Simply put, recovery runs are runs that are easy enough to not interfere with your other training. That means you need to keep those runs short and slow. How slow? Probably slower than you think.

I suppose you are familiar with using RPE as an indicator for the intensity of your runs (if you aren’t, check out this and this article). In that case, a recovery would rank between 3-5 on the RPE scale.

If you are training by heart rate, your heart rate should be around 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. Recovery runs are usually scheduled 24 hours after a hard workout, such as a tempo run, fartlek, or long run.

Do Recovery Runs Really Help With Recovery?

Contrary to popular opinion, recovery runs do not improve recovery.

No matter how slow, any type of running puts stress on your body.

The common myth perpetuated by coaches and running blogs alike that recovery runs help to flush out lactic acid from the body is just that – a myth.

The truth is that lactic acid levels return to normal within an hour after a workout. And moreover, lactic acid buildup is not even the cause for muscle fatigue in the first place.

So maybe it would be best to not use the term “recovery run” at all, but since it’s a commonly used term in running circles, I will stick with it for this article.

Why Should You Use Recovery Runs In Training?

If recovery runs don’t really help with recovery, then why should you do them?

Simple.

If you want to improve as a runner, you need to incorporate higher intensity workouts in your training and sufficiently high mileage.

But you can’t just add more tempo runs or interval sessions indefinitely. If you try to do that, you will likely end up overtrained, injured, or both.

At the same token, you can not simply increase volume at a low intensity indefinitely because you would be lacking important stimuli for improving speed and strength.

In short, improving as a runner is about finding the right balance between intensity and volume.

And that is where recovery runs come in. They add low-intensity volume to a training program with enough key workouts to elicit positive adaptations.

How And When Should You Incorporate Recovery Runs In Your Training?

Let me start this section by saying that you don’t necessarily need to add recovery runs to your training program.

Remember that the true benefit of recovery runs is to safely increase volume while keeping your higher intensity workouts.

Now, if you are running at a conversational pace all of the time anyway, there is no real need for recovery runs.

For example, suppose you follow a classical “base building” approach and keep your runs slow and short. In that case, you likely won’t be needing any recovery runs.

The same goes for devoted followers of the Maffetone method or recreational runners, who do a daily easy 10 km around the block to wind down from work.

For all others, here are some general guidelines:

1. Schedule Your Recovery Runs 24 Hours After Your Key Workouts

Usually, recovery runs are placed in 24 hours following a key workout. Logically you only need to think about incorporating them when you run at least 4 times a week.

When you only run 3 times, you need to focus on quality workouts.

When you run once a day, you could insert a recovery run every second day. Many elite runners, however, run twice a day. One key workout and one recovery run.

2. Keep Your Recovery Runs Short And Slow

There is no general rule for how long or slow your recovery run should be. However, remember that you want these runs to be slow and short enough to not interfere with your more strenuous sessions.

You might need to experiment to find your optimal duration and pace.

However, I recommend running slower than you think you need and keeping these runs between 20-60 minutes.

Your current fitness level and running experience will dictate the pace and length of your recovery runs.

3. Follow The Hard-Easy-Principle

This is a general guideline. For most recreational athletes, who juggle training with holding down a full-time job and caring for their family, two consecutive hard runs will be too much.

However, some athletes can handle 2 consecutive hard workouts once in a while. In fact, famous running coach Renato Canova uses “special blocks” where his athletes run 2 hard workouts in one day.

Likewise, you probably don’t need to schedule 2 recovery runs in a row for most of your training. However, again there are exceptions.

For example, you might decide that you don’t want to break your running streak after finishing your first ultramarathon. In that case, you likely will do only short and easy runs for the first week or two.

I, too, have done 2 days of short, slow runs only when I was under very high stress from a lack of sleep and work stress.

Sometimes Rest Or Light Cross-Training Are Better Alternatives

Sometimes you might simply need a break from running.

Whenever you feel mentally or physically exhausted, it is time to take a step back and evaluate what you are doing.

Only a few of us can keep up a running streak for extended periods. There is no shame in choosing a hike or a leisurely bike ride instead of a short and easy run.

And sometimes, it is good to just kick up your feet and do nothing at all 😉

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