Learn how to build recovery runs into your training plans to help your muscles repair and keep your legs moving
It might sound oxymoronic, but running can actually be a great way to recover from, well, running. It’s also known as active recovery (the other option being passive recovery: no running at all), and knowing how to approach your run on these types of training sessions is the key. We find out more…
Why do we need recovery runs?
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 Tom.
What are the benefits?
“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 Tom 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 Tom.
How do we do a recovery run?
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.
When it comes to the run itself, 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 James 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 Tom 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.”