The Importance of Easy Recovery Runs

The best tonic for a hard workout or long run is an easy recovery run

It may seem counterintuitive that sometimes the best way to properly rest after a tough workout is to actually go for a run. Any type of hard stimulus inflicted to the body from an intense workout on the road or track can cause the legs to ache and the mind to feel burned out. Your natural instincts tell you that the day after this kind of workout should put spent putting your feet up and taking a zero in the running log. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Often, what your body really needs is to go for an easy recovery run.

“Easy, lower intensity recovery running allows the body to both increase the rate of the removal of waste product in the aftermath of harder sessions,” says coach Pete Rea of the ZAP Fitness foundation in Blowing Rock, N.C.

In other words, you need to get moving after you’ve run hard.

Pascal Dobert, a former Olympic runner and now a conditioning coach for Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, says recovery running also facilitates muscle repair.

“Whenever you exercise a muscle strenuously, either on the track or the gym, those muscles and tendons will develop micro tears and otherwise become irritated and inflamed, and an easy recovery run will work the muscles and muscle attachments (tendons) in a gentle and restorative way by increasing blood flow and muscle pliability,” he says.

In addition to the physical benefits of a recovery run, there are also the mental bonuses. Doing tempo runs or track repeats where you need to hit certain splits requires intense mental concentration, and, without a chance to run at a slow pace, the stress of these workouts can take a toll on the mind, which may then lead to burnout.

When you should do recovery runs depends on your workout schedule, but at a minimum, do them after any training that is completed at or above your particular goal pace. You can also use recovery runs if you are feeling the symptoms of burnout, which can include an elevated heart rate, insomnia, and a lack of desire to train.

Here are five tips for first-time recovery runners:

1. Pick a flat course.

Running routes with hills is a terrible option when you are out to rest the body. Coach Rea recommends flatter rather than hillier courses for recovery runs, as hilly runs will very easily increase the heart rate, even at very relaxed rhythms. Also, factor in the surface when planning your route. Since you are using this run to rest the body, consider running on grass, dirt or gravel to give the legs a break from the previous day’s pounding.

2. Let go of pace and have fun.

Unless you are trying to make sure you are slow enough, recovery runs aren’t a good time to be constantly checking in on your distance and pace. Ryan Lamppa, the founder of Bring Back the Mile as well as Running USA, suggests runners channel their inner child on these relaxing  recovery runs. “Have fun,” he says. “Don’t worry or think about pace or effort. If you see some flowers, stop to smell them or hug a tree and then continue on your recovery run. And yes, walking or hiking can be part of your recovery run.”

3. Apply the “talk test” during the run.

You can’t run too slow during a recovery run. Coach Dobert recommends that if you are running with someone, make sure you can talk to them without gasping for your next breath. “If you can have a light conversation while running, it’s probably a good indication that you’re running easy enough,” Dobert says. “If you can’t have a conversation, you’re most likely running too hard.” Another way to check in to see if you are running slow enough is to monitor your heart rate. Rea advises that runners who have a good feel for their resting heart rate as well as their maximum heart rate (which has a strong genetic component), should keep the easy days under 75 to 78 percent of your maximum heart rate.

4. Pay attention to your surroundings.

Dobert advises his runners to be aware of their form, especially their footfalls. Sometimes the mind can wander on these easy runs. “Since recovery runs are easier in terms of effort, it’s not uncommon to lose concentration of where you’re running and the footing of the trail or road you’re on,” he says. “The last thing an athlete needs is a rolled or sprained ankle or a fall.”

5. Try these two sample recovery runs.

Recovery Run 1:

Coach Rea uses this one with his athletes, and it’s actually two short runs. They are completed the day after a longer and more-intense run. Make these runs 25 to 30 minutes each with 4-5 hours between runs.

Recovery Run 2:

This run should be a 25-minute group run with people who are typically slower than you are. This might mean showing up at a local running store run or joining a group that is less performance-oriented than you are most of the time. Use the “talk test” and select a flat stretch of roads or trails that you have never run before. End the run on soft grass and do 5-10 minutes of easy bounding barefoot.

Duncan Larkin
Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, "The 30-Minute Runner," will be published in January.