The Most Misunderstood Workout: The Recovery Run

Running is a stressful activity. It puts stress on your muscular and skeletal systems, your aerobic system, and even your immune system. It’s no surprise that the average runner has been injured a number of times throughout their career. A common theme among these runners is that they go too hard on their “recovery” days. In effect, these recovery workouts end up adding stress to the body when they’re designed to alleviate it! Whether this stems from the runner’s strong work ethic or some sort of neurosis isn’t quite clear, but the bottom line is the same: Runners need to go easier on their recovery days.

Going easier on recovery days has several important benefits. The first is that it allows you to better absorb and benefit from the work you do on the hard days. Giving the body a chance to recover allows the physiological effects of the training you’re doing to take effect. Second, recovery runs truly are supposed to have a recovery effect. When you run at a slow pace, blood moves through your muscles removing the junk that builds up during harder workouts. It also loosens up the soft tissue. It does so without adding any additional stress to your body. This reduces the chance of injury while continuing to build fitness and durability. You have to truly run easy though (we will define “easy” in a bit)! Finally, going easy gives you a mental break. It allows you to relax while running and have fun with it. Training for anything from a 5k to marathon is tough, so allowing for days to jog easy and enjoy what you’re doing can be refreshing.

A study from Runners World highlights exactly what I’m talking about. This study compared how hard coaches told their athletes to push themselves in a given workout and how hard the athlete actually pushed themselves. The result was that the athletes consistently went too hard on their “easy” days and subsequently not hard enough on their hard days (see graph below). This is no surprise considering that athletes that push themselves too hard on recovery days probably aren’t recovered enough to attack their hard workouts with the correct level of intensity. The result is a “murky middle” where the athlete isn’t getting the most out of their training.

REI = Rate of Intended Exertion | RPE = Rate of Perceived Exertion


So what do I mean by run “easy”? This will obviously be relative to your ability level and speed. In general, your recovery pace should be done at a heart rate which is about 74% of your threshold heart rate. In layman’s terms, this is typically about a minute slower than your pace on a normal training run. If you do your regular training runs at 7:00/mile pace, then use 8:00/mile as a guideline for a recovery run. For slower paces you’ll want to stretch out this differential. For a 10:00/mile pace, for example, make 11:30/mile your guide on a recovery day. If you train at 9:00/mile pace, running at 9:30/pace on an “easy” day isn’t enough of a differential for your body to benefit from the effects of a true recovery run. For those used to running one pace all the time, it truly will take some mental fortitude to force yourself to run slower. However, there are big benefits to doing this. You’ll be able to push harder on hard days and develop consistently over the long term. Of course, most importantly, it reduces the risk of injury.

On a closing note, I’d just like to stress that you can never go too easy on an easy day. You should have a pace in mind that is an absolute max, one that you’ll never cross no matter how good you’re feeling, but if you feel you need to go slower then by all means do so — the point of the run is to recover, bottom line. Next time you have an easy or recovery day built into your training plan, remember this blog post and make sure that you’re actually recovering!

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