If you’re at all a serious runner, you may have caught wind of something called a “recovery run.” These runs have become popular in recent years, and there are a lot of claims and assumptions that fly around about what they’re actually supposed to be and do for us endurance runners. Many coaches will claim that they flush lactic acid build up from the legs by increasing blood flow, or that they promote tissue repair.
But none of these claims have any scientific backing. Lactic acid will flush out of the system and return to normal levels within an hour regardless. There’s no evidence to suggest a recovery run actually helps you recover from a hard run, either. The name itself is a bit misleading, too. You aren't "recovering" per se.
So, what’s the point?
How Recovery Runs Actually Benefit Runners
They challenge you to run in a pre-fatigued state.
In short, a recovery run gets you up on your sore, tired legs in what is called a “pre-fatigued” state and forces you to work your muscles at a more relaxed pace. Because you are exercising muscles at this stage, before they are at risk of injury, your body will adapt by alternating what muscle fibers are used to complete the running motion.
This, in turn, increases your endurance and creates a stronger runner.
Ultimately, this helps you fend off fatigue better in the future and perform runs with less stress on the body. So while a recovery run itself is not an act of recovery, you are training your body to recover better from more intense runs. So calling it a "recovery run" refers to its ability to help you recover more quickly in the long-term.
How A Recovery Run Works
Initially, you might be lead to believe that a recovery run is some sort of cool down exercise. Not so. Within 24-hours of completing a key run (or any run that has left you feeling exhausted or fatigued), let your next run be a recovery run. So for you, it might be a cool down, but you might be running either hours later, or the next day. As long as you are in the 24-hour window.
Recovery runs are only necessary if you run four or more times per week. Otherwise, just take a day off to rest between your key runs, or take time to cross-train.
Recovery runs are individual and personal. There are no guidelines on duration or intensity, however, too long or hard can affect your recovery and performance. It should not be up to the same level of intensity as your regular key run. The idea is that this is a relaxed, casual exercise.
Many experienced runners run very, very slow recovery runs. Don’t be afraid to go at a snail’s pace! What is important is moving in a pre-fatigued state.
How do you know your recovery run is effective?
Saying that the recovery run is personal and demands experimentation to get right can be a challenge. As a runner, it can be tough to hold back when you want to give it your all...even when giving it your all is going to result in an injury. Here are a few quick guidelines that you can use as a barometer for your recovery runs.
Don’t look at your numbers. You recovery run is the last situation in which you need to worry about how quickly you ran, how much distance you covered or any other metric you might be tempted to measure. The only things you need to worry about are your surroundings and your form, so you don’t injure yourself. Allow yourself to have fun. Stop and enjoy the sights if you want to. Make a special playlist if you so you can really enjoy things. Do whatever you need to do to make sure it’s about fun for you! Take a running buddy along. Leave your smartwatch at home. Do whatever it takes to put metrics out of your mind and instead focus on the pure art of running.
Pick flat terrain. The goal of your recovery run is not to get your heart rate spiking high. Avoid running up and down hills for this particular run, and instead, stick to a flat and easy terrain. This will not only keep your heart rate even and more consistent, but it will prevent you from having to exert more energy and muscle to overcome tough patches in your route.
Can you talk with ease? If you can’t tell whether or not you’re running too fast, there’s always a simple metric: talk to someone. A recovery run is a great opportunity to bring a friend along. If you can talk with ease and without getting out of breath, you know that you are running at the right pace.
Ultimately, despite the debate surrounding recovery runs, I think they are beneficial. I may dread doing them when every muscle is aching from a hard run, but nothing feels better than shaking out the soreness and doing something just for the enjoyment of it. I don’t push myself too hard. I don’t try to hit any markers or times or goals. I just run.
And in the end, I know I’m stronger for it.
Do you think recovery runs are worth it? Share your thoughts or alternatives in the comments.