Whether you are a beginner runner training for your first 5k or 10k, or you're an advanced runner looking to set a personal best and qualify for a big goal event (such as the Boston Marathon), understanding the concept of recovery runs and how to incorporate them into your training plan is essential for reaching your running goals.
Unfortunately, many well-meaning running coaches and runners themselves have long misunderstood this type of run workout. This has created a lot of confusion about the effect, the purpose, and the proper methods for doing successful recovery runs.
In this post, we'll tell you everything you need to know about recovery runs to clear up all that confusion, so you can get the absolute most out of your training.
In this article, you'll learn:
- What is a recovery run
- How long should a recovery run be
- When should you do a recovery run
- How fast should recovery runs be
- What is recovery run pace
- Do recovery runs really work?
- How far should recovery runs be
- What are the benefits of a recovery run
What is a Recovery Run?
A recovery run is a low-intensity workout. It's a very short, very slow run that is included in well-designed plans of runners who are already training more than four times per week. While the name suggests recovery runs will increase your recovery, this is not entirely true.
Science has found that the benefit of a recovery run is to provide an additional training effect. That's why we refer to recovery runs as "Fitness Runs" in the training plans in our app. However, they'll still be called recovery runs in this article.
The pace of a recovery run is an extremely easy, relaxed pace. It should be much slower than your typical training pace. In fact, many runners refer to these workouts as an "easy shuffle." Going this slowly will provide an additional running workout while keeping your stress response very low so you don't build up lactic acid and cortisol. This truly is an easy day on your schedule.
To make sure you're running at the correct pace when doing these easy efforts, we've provided calculators below to help dial in your recovery intensity.
The Science of Recovery Run Pace
They Don't Actually Enhance Recovery
For a long time, coaches and runners believed that recovery runs were an essential part of training; they helped speed up the recovery process from other hard training runs because they increase blood flow.
However, recent studies have questioned this belief. They have shown that recovery runs may not be as beneficial for recovery as previously thought.
One study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that recovery runs did not enhance muscle recovery or reduce muscle damage. In fact, the study found that they might actually create more muscle damage and that recovery techniques like massage or cold water immersion worked much better for body recovery and repair.
But that doesn't mean your recovery run days don't have any training benefits; they actually have several!
Recovery Runs Improve Endurance
Training in a pre-fatigued state, as you do in a recovery run, can be very beneficial. One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that training on tired legs, even with the same total training load, increased endurance by as much as 90%.
It is important to note that training with tired legs all the time can increase the risk of injury. Therefore, recovery runs should be used as a tool in a well-balanced training plan. Doing this type of workout in a planned and strategic way can be an effective way to increase endurance race performance without risking injury -- but it has to be performed correctly!
4 Benefits of Recovery Runs
As we've discussed, recovery runs don't actually promote recovery very well, but that doesn't mean they're not beneficial. There are four primary benefits, which we'll list here:
- Benefit #1: Improved fitness and performance: Recovery workouts help runners learn how to run frequently, even when they’re tired. This is an important skill for runners to develop because, during a race, there will be moments when you will need to push through fatigue to finish fast and maintain proper running technique. By consistently adding recovery runs into your training routine, your body will become better adapted to running when tired. This will make it easier to push through those tough moments during races.
- Benefit #2: Body feels better: While the physiologically measurable benefits of recovery runs are debated, most people feel better after doing them because it helps you get your blood flowing and loosen up your muscles.
- Benefit #3: Fat burning: Running at a low intensity teaches your body to be metabolically efficient and burn fat as fuel. This is critical to success as runners step up to half marathons and longer races or simply add more mileage.
- Benefit #4: Mental health improvements: Recovery runs also have mental and emotional benefits. Exercise is known to improve mental and emotional well-being, particularly during a hard period of a training cycle. As the body becomes accustomed to the endorphins released during exercise, recovery runs help your body to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety. Another great reason to add this workout to your weekly mileage.
5 Steps to Incorporating Easy Pace Recovery Runs Into Your Training Plan
Understanding how to properly include recovery runs is vital to see the most benefit. Without a proper structure, you'll just be running more, which opens the door for injury and overtraining, regardless of your fitness level.
Step 1: How Fast Should Recovery Runs Be?
The first step in including recovery runs into your run workouts is calculating your training zone heart rates and paces. Most people do their recovery workouts much too fast; recovery pace is an extremely slow pace that keeps your heart rate very low.
We prefer to use heart rate to dictate low-intensity running as opposed to pace because it automatically adjusts based on all factors associated with your current stress and training levels. Recovery runs should be done keeping your heart rate in Zone 1, or 10 beats per minute from the top of your Zone 2.
You can use the calculators below to calculate your personal run training zones for heart rate and pacing.
Once you have your training zones, your recovery runs should be entirely in your low heart rate training zones. Here's an example of how we prescribe a recovery run in one of our marathon plans.
Step 2: When Should You Do Recovery Runs?
When incorporating recovery runs into your training schedule, remember that they should only be added once you already have a long run, an interval run, a tempo run, and a strength training session in place.
Once you have these four workouts in your weekly plan, you can start adding recovery runs on the days you're not doing a key session (in other words, between key workout days.)
You can see a sample week from our Ultramarathon Training Plan as an example of how recovery runs (Fitness Runs) are slotted between key workouts for someone training at a very high level.
Step 3: How Long Should Recovery Runs Be?
Recovery runs should be kept short, with 20-40 minutes being plenty to get the blood moving. The point of this session is to make it so short and so slow that you feel guilty by the time you finish. That's how you know you're doing a recovery run successfully, it will feel like the opposite of a hard workout.
Step 4: How to Change Recovery Runs as your Fitness Changes
It's always important to keep your training zones up to date as you progress through your training. Our athletes rarely update their heart rate training zones because these tend to stay the same within a few beats per minute, but training paces get updated every 2-4 months using the test shown below and the calculator above.
Step 5: When To Skip Recovery Runs
It's important to note that successful runners should skip some recovery runs. In fact, we give our athletes full credit for reaching their training plan goals if they complete 80% or more of their scheduled workouts; though it may seem counter-intuitive, endurance athletes really should skip the occasional workout.
You should skip a recovery run if your legs are sore after huge race efforts. Light swims and bike rides are a much better way to feel good after these events. Leading up to a race, you should skip a recovery run if you're feeling exhausted, sore, or like pre-injury niggles are building up. The time gained by skipping the recovery run would allow for some much-needed rest.
Wrap-Up on Easy Runs For Recovery
Performing a recovery run each week (which really should be called Fitness Runs as we do in our app) has an excellent benefit if you're already training more than four times per week. However, it's critical to perform them properly and have them scheduled correctly as part of your overall training, or you could be doing additional muscle damage and getting further away from reaching your goals.
Hopefully you found this article helpful. If you want help with creating a personalized plan that includes all of the methods we discuss in our articles, we'd encourage you to give our training plan app a try.
It's the only app in the world with plans designed specifically for the needs of ordinary people who want to accomplish something extraordinary in endurance sports.