Coaching

Slow Down to Get Faster

Committing to recovery runs can be the key to running more miles with less struggle. The cool-it plan you didn't know you needed, here …

Last updated: June 1, 2021
Why You Need Recovery Runs

When runners talk to each other about their sport, you can bet pace comes up: "What's your marathon time? How fast are your intervals? What were your splits?" Naturally, the speedier you are, the more cred you earn. 

A less obvious stat to brag about, however, is how slow you run—a critical but totally underrated skill that, when used as part of a recovery run, rounds out a solid running routine.

"You'll probably feel better if you go out for an easy run than if you do absolutely nothing".

Jason Fitzgerald
Strength Running Head Coach

What Is a Recovery Run?

"A recovery run is likely the shortest, easiest run that you do all week", says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field-certified coach, the head coach of Strength Running, and the host of The Strength Running Podcast.

The key to doing one well is to not stress about how fast you are (or aren't) 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 ticking off the three Cs: comfortable, controlled and conversational (that last one refers to the dialogue you should be able to hold without getting breathless). If you're numbers-driven, this effort translates to between a 1 and a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, says Fitzgerald. If you're vibe-driven, this effort is playfully called "sexy pace" because it should look and feel effortless.

Why Bother With a Recovery Run?

Active recovery (low-intensity effort following a harder workout) 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 if you do absolutely nothing". That may be because active recovery after strenuous exercise helps clear blood lactate build-up faster than passive recovery does, so blood gets to your muscles more effectively to allow them to 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 soothe your muscles and your mind, says Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett, Nike senior director of global running.

Along with helping you bounce back faster, slower runs also offer a handful of extra fitness benefits, says Fitzgerald. They may teach your body to burn more fat. They can improve your endurance by building denser capillary networks within your tissues, which means you can deliver more oxygen to your muscles. And they strengthen your muscles, bones and connective tissue without over-stressing your body. Yes, please, to all of the above.

In short, these scaled-back sessions can help you perform better when you do 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, according to research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise. Go ahead and read that one more time.

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.

Why Bother With a Recovery Run?

Active recovery (low-intensity effort following a harder workout) 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 if you do absolutely nothing". That may be because active recovery after strenuous exercise helps clear blood lactate build-up faster than passive recovery does, so blood gets to your muscles more effectively to allow them to 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 soothe your muscles and your mind, says Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett, Nike senior director of global running.

Along with helping you bounce back faster, slower runs also offer a handful of extra fitness benefits, says Fitzgerald. They may teach your body to burn more fat. They can improve your endurance by building denser capillary networks within your tissues, which means you can deliver more oxygen to your muscles. And they strengthen your muscles, bones and connective tissue without over-stressing your body. Yes, please, to all of the above.

In short, these scaled-back sessions can help you perform better when you do 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, according to research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise. Go ahead and read that one more time.

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.

How to Add Recovery Runs to Your Routine

This one's pretty simple: Just slooow down, and maybe take a route that's flatter or 10 to 20 percent shorter than your usual loop, says Coach Bennett. Remember, you want to hit a 1 to 3 out of 10 on that effort scale. Start with as many recovery runs as you need to feel more energised, not exhausted, whether that means adding one on a typical day off or trading a more intense run for a more chilled option.

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 minutes and 34 seconds 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? Of course not. 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. 

Recovery runs give 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".

Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Justin Tran

Why You Need Recovery Runs

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