The Ultimate Guide to Recovery Runs

Recovery runs are an awesome – and often-overlooked – tool in any runner’s arsenal of possible training modalities.

When focussing on performance – especially when training for events like the marathon, for example – it’s easy to feel that each training run needs to be done to a high intensity in order to continuously move the needle forward.

But recovery runs can be very strategic if done right – they can help you recover from hard workouts, while contributing to your overall training mileage and generally upping your running game.

So while it’s easy to shy away from an easy run – hey, I sometimes even feel guilty about them – over the longer term they can help you improve as a runner across the board.

So let’s jump in and look at what exactly recovery runs are, how to perform them, and what you’re gonna get out of them!

What Is a Recovery Run?

A recovery run is a low-intensity training run, usually performed within 24 hours of a hard training run.

The purpose of a recovery run is – as the name suggests – aid with recovery after your hard workout.

A recovery run is performed at a low intensity, specifically meant to not tax your body.

Benefits of Recovery Runs

Recovery Runs for Rapid Recuperation

The most widely recognized benefit of a recovery run is that it promotes blood flow throughout the body.

This increase in circulation helps flush out any waste products still in the blood system (specifically, lactic acid build-up). By clearing out these waste products produced during the earlier intense workout, you’re accelerating the normal recovery process – cutting hours, if not days, off that time.

Recovery Runs Improve Your Running Game

Slowing down and forgetting about the miles gives you a chance to dial in your running form: take it easy, think about keeping your torso upright, swing those elbows, and don’t overstride.

Listen to your body, and your breath.

Scheduling the occasional lighter run can give your body a much-needed break, and improve things for your next challenging session.

This way, recovery runs can help prevent the risk of developing a training injury such as Runner’s Knee or Plantar Fasciitis.

Tune in to your running to tune out of stress!

Related: Chocolate Milk After a Workout – Is It Really a Good Recovery Drink?

Recovery Runs Add To Your Overall Training

When in training for an event like a half marathon, a huge challenge is simply getting the necessary mile in.

A recovery run gives you the opportunity to top-up your weekly mileage a little while keeping the intensity nice and low – so you’re not putting undue stress on your body.

Make easy, relaxing runs can be an effective part of a bigger training plan!

Easy Running for Fat Adaptation

Slowing things down when running also can help the way your body accesses energy reserves.

When performing intense training runs, your body mainly gravitates towards the easily-accessible stored carbs in your muscles and liver for energy. A quick boost of high energy is needed, and that’s where to go for it.

When you run at a more relaxed pace, your body will look to use more fat as fuel – the energy demands aren’t so intense, so those stored fat reserves are suddenly more attractive to your hungry muscles.

What does this mean?

Performing slower recovery-style runs aids fat adaptation – i.e. your body’s ability to fuel itself from it’s fat – which will make you a better endurance runner.

Your body learns how to access fat as an effective form of fuel when performing long runs!

Recovery Runs Boost Your Mental State

Recovery runs are a great opportunity to focus on running form and being mindful as you exercise.

Often during training – especially during intense training like marathon training – it’s easy to get wrapped up in pushing hard, beating the clock, or tuning out (dissociation).

Often this can lead to us ignoring how we’re actually running, and can cause us to gradually lose sight of why we run in the first place.

Recovery runs give you the opportunity to disconnect, stop pushing, and intentionally slow down and smell the roses.

When you go for your recovery run, switch off any tracking apps or devices – or at least, don’t log your run unless you want to.

Use them as an excuse to go intentionally slow and reconnect to why you enjoy running in the first place!

Related: Post Marathon Recovery: 13 Expert Tips For A Fast Recuperation

Recovery Runs Runner

When Should You Do a Recovery Run?

Recovery runs are most effective if performed within 24 hours of an intense training run.

This short time window is so you clear out the lactic acid built up in the blood-stream from the intense workouts.

Evenings are naturally a good time to perform them – a low-intensity workout to round off your day can be a very welcome transition before relaxing and getting ready to sleep.

For runners-in-training, a common way to incorporate an easy recovery run is to perform an intense training session early in the morning, then follow up with a very light recovery run later in the evening.

It’s worth noting here that not everyone actually needs to do recovery runs – if you’re running less than three times per week, then you’re unlikely to gain much specific benefit from performing a recovery run over a regular training run.

Related reading: How To Rest Like An Elite Athlete

How To Perform a Recovery Run

Recovery Run Pace / Intensity

When thinking about recovery run pace, the trick is to not overthink it:

If you think you’re running too fast, then you’re running too fast.

Recovery runs should be performed at a slow, easy, conversational pace.

In terms of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), aim for a 3 out of 10 – you want it to feel easy, and like you could potentially keep going for hours (not that you’re going to).

Check out the reference table below if you’re not familiar with RPE.

rate of perceived exertion

If you train to Heart Rate Zones, then aim to stay within Zone 2 – keep your heart rate comfortably below 70% of your HR Max.

And for those runners looking for a recommended pace in min/mile or min/kilometer, I’d implore you to ignore your pace and listen to your body!

Rate of Perceived Exertion tells you much more than your speed can.

Recovery Run Length

When thinking about duration – or distance – for your recovery run, err on the side of shorter rather than longer.

Aim for a recovery run duration of between 20 and 40 minutes, or running between 2 and 5 miles (depending on your running experience levels).

Basically, don’t overthink recovery run performance. The idea is to get your blood flowing and change your mental state, not hit any performance benchmarks.

Choose a fun and picturesque route round your neighborhood, or plug into your favorite artist or podcast.

Any distance that starts to feel like a chore for you will negate a lot of the mental benefits of your recovery run

Relax Into Your Recovery Run

Downtime is an essential part of any good runner’s training plan.

Consciously scheduling time to relax and switch off helps us move from ‘fight or flight’ mode, to ‘rest and digest’ mode.

Being able to switch off the Type-A, performance-driven voice in our head actually helps us recover – your brain realises theres no threat present, and signals to your muscles to enhance the recovery process.

Recovery runs can play an important part in this process, if performed well.

When you go for a recovery run, focus on being relaxed, not pushing hard, and enjoying what you’re doing.

If you can get to this state, you’ll increase the dopamine production in your head – which in turn signals to your muscles and body to relax and recover.

The ability to relax during downtime is often overlooked, but is actually a key tool used by elite athletes that we have to use to.

Read more: The Key Brain Chemical For Run Recovery

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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