The more running becomes a part of your life, the more you realise there’s so much to learn about this sport. Training regularly will improve your ability and performance, but overtraining, and neglecting rest, can lead to injury and illness. One aspect of active rest (rather than passive rest, which would be a day off from running) many overlook or don’t fully understand, is the recovery run.
Your training definitely shouldn’t be at full effort all the time. This can be a tough truth for those relatively new to the sport, who have fallen in love with those feel-good endorphins. The harder you run, the more these feelings can flood your bloodstream and quickly you find yourself in an evil circle of running where you are always pushing. Every run, you force your body to perform to its optimum. Trying to get the perceived maximum from every session.
“In my experience, most recreational runners feel time-crunched and have the perception that working hard will elicit the most ‘bang for buck’,” says Tom Bennett, a high-performance endurance coach from T2 Coaching (t2coaching.com).
“This, coupled with the rise in popularity in the media of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), has resulted in some runners neglecting the huge benefits to be had from long, steady and/or recovery running in their training plans.”
Studies have shown that while HIIT training produces a gratifying early bump in fitness over the medium term, moderate running can give equally beneficial changes of VO2 max in recreational athletes.
Exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler, from the University of Adger, Norway, created the 80/20 rule. He argues that for maximum performance gains, 80 per cent of your workouts should be done at a slow speed, coupled with 20 per cent at a medium to fast pace.
This means if you train five times a week, only approximately one session should be in the hard zone (either Z3 or Z4-5 of your heart rate), such as an interval or threshold workout. “This means 80 per cent of your training week should be spent on steady/easy running/exercise, that could easily fit into a ‘recovery running’ definition,” says Bennett.
“The key to gaining the most benefit from your hard training is through rest and recovery,” says James Thie, performance director for athletics at Cardiff Met University (cardiffmet.ac.uk). “Sometimes, rather than total rest, a recovery run is a much better way to aid the process. It helps by increasing blood circulation, which will help the body process waste products.”
Recovery runs can add volume to your whole training week, which can also boost your aerobic capacity, helping you run faster: the better the base, the more capacity you have to run harder and faster.
But there’s more than just physiological benefits to recovery running. “They allow runners to work on other goals beyond performance, such as process goals,” says Bennett. “This means focusing on skills, such as the different technical components required to run well, including running tall, backward elbow drive, or having a slight forward lean,” adds Bennett.
There’s another massive benefit gained from a weekly recovery run. Leaving your watch at home and running easy, while maintaining good running form, gives all of us an opportunity to practise mindfulness. “This should be a welcome distraction for every runner from the ever-increasing demands of modern day-to-day life,” believes Bennett.
But to ensure you’re doing recovery runs right, how should they feel? In a nutshell, ensure it feels easy. “Run at a pace where you can sustain a conversation, as this means you are working aerobically, not going into oxygen debt,” suggests Thie. “If running to heart rate, this maybe in the region of 50-60 per cent [zone 1-2] of your maximum heart rate.”
Also, to maintain the recovery process, choose a softer surface like grass or trail. “More technical or challenging off-road terrain will naturally curb your speed and intensity, but increase the technical aspect and naturally develop proprioception and balance,” says Bennett.
Avoid chasing mile or kilometre splits as it doesn’t matter how slow the recovery run is. If you have a natural inclination to always run faster, or struggle to control your pace, try fasted exercise first thing in the morning, as this will cap your exercise intensity. “As recovery runs are a slower speed, they are also at a low percentage of a runner’s maximum oxygen uptake value, and consequently will burn more fat than carbs, compared with faster running,” adds John Brewer, professor of Applied Sports Science at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk) and author of Run Smart (Bloomsbury).
“This means the body can run while still replenishing its energy stores (glycogen) and, at the same time, maintaining the muscle strength and the peripheral capacity within the muscles and blood system that’s needed to run well.”
A recovery run is more complicated than simply going for a run at a slower pace – it should have some purpose, such as focusing on technique. One important element of a good recovery run is where you run slower, and easier than you would normally, but shorten your stride while maintaining a good turnover, so you still achieve a quick cadence. You shouldn’t be lazy and just slap your feet down.
A basic rule of training is that a hard session should always be followed by an easy one. If you have raced at the weekend, completed a tough track session or a threshold run, your body needs time to recover from the demands made on it, for training adaptations to occur. This is an ideal day to slot in your recovery run.
You’ll gain both physical and psychological benefits. “They give runners the chance to recover mentally from more rigorous and painful sessions, and can help to make running feel more enjoyable,” says Professor Brewer. “Don’t slip into the habit of overdoing recovery runs though, as you need more intensive runs to develop strength, speed and endurance.” For most runners, one recovery run a week should be sufficient. Be brave!
Leave your GPS device at home. Use this opportunity to focus on your technique, as well as integrating mindfulness into your running. “Try new locations and chat with your running buddies,” says Thie. “Remember, make the hard days hard, and those recovery days, easy!” When you’ve completed a good recovery run you should feel fresh, as if you can still carry on. Be mindful of maintaining good form throughout the distance, bringing both mind and body back into alignment, ready for your next session, and feeling good about the run you’ve just completed.
“I use recovery runs for active recovery. I’ve found that taking my easy days really easy helps me to recover quicker so I can push harder on the hard days. I usually take two recovery days in between each hard day. On my recovery runs I don’t wear a watch as I know how long a certain loop is at home. This helps me to just chill and enjoy the run no matter how slow it is.” – Charlotte Purdue, first British finisher in the 2017 IAAF World Championships marathon
“Many runners learn the hard way. The purpose of a recovery run is just that, to let your body recover. I find it difficult to run easy, as the pace doesn’t feel natural. The best way to do recovery runs is to buddy up with someone who runs at your recovery pace, or pace someone who’s slower. Committing to someone else’s pace keeps you in check. Learning the importance of recovery runs will lead to you being a better runner.” – Sarah Beattie, marathon runner
“In 2016 I completed a run streak which included marathons and 10Ks, so I learned the importance of recovery runs. A lot of runners do them too fast and I partly blame GPS watches – rather than listening to your body. Recovery runs help loosen up tight muscles, keep niggles under control after races and mean the next session is higher quality. Running on trail rather than road helps, as the terrain and beautiful views slow you down.” – Paula Williams, marathon runner.