By Nike Running
Dialling back your effort can actually make you a faster, stronger runner.
While crushing sprints and hills and logging double-digit miles can make you feel invincible, your body needs slower runs to absorb that hard work and help you bounce back faster. Here's how active recovery can build you back up—and when to programme it into your training.
When runners talk about running, you can bet pace comes up: "What's your goal time? How fast are your intervals? What were your splits?" The speedier you are, the more cred you earn.
A better stat to brag about, however, is how slow you run to recover. "A recovery run is likely the shortest, easiest run that you do all week", says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track and Field-certified coach, the head coach of Strength Running and the host of The Strength Running Podcast. "It has numerous fitness benefits, the biggest of which is active recovery".
Any kind of low-intensity effort following a harder workout qualifies as active recovery. For runners, think easy jog, and one where you never stress about how fast you're moving. "Recovery pace isn't really a pace, it's more of an effort", explains Fitzgerald. To describe how leisurely that should feel, he recommends thinking of three Cs: comfortable, controlled and conversational (that refers to the dialogue you should be able to hold without getting breathless). If you're numbers-driven, this effort translates to between a one and a three on a scale of 10, says Fitzgerald.
"You'll probably feel better if you go out for an easy run than you would if you did absolutely nothing"
Jason Fitzgerald, Strength Running Head Coach
Active recovery is an alternative to passive recovery—you know, lounging on the couch—and it's likely the superior choice. As Fitzgerald puts it: "You'll probably feel better if you go out for an easy run than you would if you did absolutely nothing". That may be because active recovery after strenuous exercise helps clear blood lactate buildup faster than passive recovery does, so blood gets to your muscles more effectively to help them repair themselves, found a study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
There's the mental component as well. If you logged a crazy-tough run yesterday—or maybe you had the kind of emotionally challenging day that equals the stress of that type of workout—taking a relaxing run could help soothe your muscles and your mind.
Along with helping you bounce back faster, slower runs also yield a trifecta of additional fitness benefits, says Fitzgerald. They may help teach your body to burn more fat. They can help develop your endurance by building denser capillary networks within your tissues (which, in turn, deliver more oxygen to your muscles). And they help strengthen your muscles, bones and connective tissue without over-stressing your body.
That means these scaled-back bouts can help you perform better when you want to push it. In fact, when runners were tested before and after doing either active or passive recovery, the active group was able to run nearly three times longer than those who simply rested were, according to research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise.
"That extra mileage is a whole new stress for you, so you want to make sure you can do it as safely as possible"
Jason Fitzgerald, Strength Running Head Coach
Recovery runs also come into play if you're looking to increase your weekly mileage. A simple way to up your training volume is to add more days of running—and those extra days should begin as recovery runs, says Fitzgerald. "That extra mileage is a whole new stress for you, so you want to make sure you can do it as safely as possible", he says. That means slow and short to start.
As you get fitter, you can pull back on the number of super-easy days you do. "The more advanced you are as a runner, the fewer recovery days you need", says Fitzgerald. "But even a competitive runner will have at least one day a week when they're running substantially less than what they're averaging every other day, and that run is going to be at a slower, more comfortable pace". Case in point: Eliud Kipchoge, who, as the fastest marathoner of all time, can hold a pace of about 4:34 minutes per mile for 26.2 miles, may still jog a 6-mile recovery run at nearly 9 minutes per mile.
Do you have to do recovery runs? Well, no. You can run any run you want. But if you choose to do every run at the same not-too-fast, not-too-slow pace, your benefits—and enthusiasm for the sport—will likely plateau. And there are only so many miles you can run if you go all out all the time.
Doing recovery runs gives your body and mind a different, cathartic form of training. Plus, you'll probably increase the amount of time you're out there running, adds Fitzgerald. "And since one of the best ways to become a better runner is to run, the more you can do that, the better".