Why you should add recovery runs to your running regime

How to run: why you should include recovery runs into your training

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How do you recover after a long run or hard workout? If you’ve never heard of recovery runs, here’s why you should go slow and steady after your next race.

Maybe it’s the (intermittent) sun or life finally feeling a bit more normal, but we’re feeling more invigorated and energised lately. If you’ve been getting back into training since gyms reopened, these summery vibes might even have you looking towards your next fitness goal.

Perhaps you’ve been eyeballing your first 5km or are about to take part in a competitive sport for the first time in over a year. Whatever your next challenge might be, it’s important to think about recovery.

A few days ago, I ran my first 10k of 2021; it was sunny, I’d had my second vaccine with no side effects (go on, hate me) and was feeling up to the challenge. Granted, it was much slower than my runs of 2020 and certainly 2019, but I was just pleased to finish it after shying away for a while.

The next day, I was scrolling through Instagram when a boxer I follow posted about being out on a ’recovery run’. I’d literally never heard of such a thing. There is ‘run’, and there is ‘no run’. What is this in-between?

What is a recovery run?

A recovery run is a light and easy run that is done the day after a high intensity run or workout, like a 10km race. “The idea is that you run at a slow and comfortable pace for some aerobic exercise,” says Hollie Maskell, physiotherapist and fitness expert for Meglio. “This can help aid recovery and give the muscles a chance to rest.”

You’ll notice Hollie’s use of the word “can” here. Recovery runs have yet to be scientifically proven to actually speed up the recovery process. Furthermore, recent studies have indicated that lactic acid build-up and DOMs (delayed onset muscular soreness) are not related, which is historically what physios and sport scientists have praised recovery runs with helping to reduce. Evidence on the benefits of recovery runs is almost entirely anecdotal.

This lack of scientific evidence meant a number of sport scientists felt too hesitant to comment on this topic to me. Until someone stumps up the want and the funding to research this topic further, heaps of anecdotal evidence from highly experienced physios and running coaches is what we have to go on. Personally, I’d still argue that’s just as valuable as a lab experiment.

The physical benefits of recovery runs

When it comes to active versus passive recovery — i.e. some gentle exercise versus a pizza and couch day — the former comes more highly recommended. Even without the scientific backing, it’s easy to see why getting the blood pumping and warming up the muscles is a good thing. In pre-COVID times, when I was boxing competitively and running 10km races, a slow, ploddy run the next day felt like a reset, loosening up my achy muscles and releasing some tasty endorphins.

The important thing to be aware of is the exercise you choose to do. When she was running sub-three-hour marathons, running coach Elkie Mace personally preferred to swim or cycle as a form of recovery. “While I definitely adhere to the concept of recovery exercise,” she tells me, “I’m quite injury prone, and runs would have added too much load for me. I also wouldn’t encourage any runners I coach, who are injury-prone with repetitive injuries, to do a recovery run.” 

“You get the same benefits from swimming or cycling by generating blood flow. Even a walk will help to get blood flowing. Generally, activity is better than staying still to help people recover, and you’ll be able to run better the following day.”

Mace recommends recovery runs to those who run four or five times a week, and who are not prone to injury. “It’s an important part of their training,” she says. “It helps to ease those aches, and there is a training benefit too because you’re running when you’re already fatigued.“ According to one study conducted at the University of Copenhagen in 2005, exercising in a “pre-fatigued state” – the way you feel during a recovery run – actually contributes towards increased fitness and endurance.

There's not much scientific evidence to back up any claims around recovery runs but anecdotally, they're said to aid DOMS and other aches.
There's not much scientific evidence to back up any claims around recovery runs but anecdotally, they're said to aid DOMS and other aches.

The mental health benefits of recovery runs

Recovery runs aren’t just good for the body; they’re good for the mind too – not in the ways we typically associate with running (endorphins, being outside, etc.) but actually just the mental benefits of cutting yourself some slack in your training.

“It can feel very hard to use precious run time and not feel we have got the most out of it,” Dr Josephine Perry, sport psychologist at Performance in Mind, tells me, “but recovery runs are just as important mentally as they are physically. Just as our muscles get stronger when we rest and recover, so too does our brain.

“Too much fatigue can put us into a state where we start thinking with the emotional, threat-driven part of our brain and become unable to make good, logical decisions. Recovery runs, where we run completely without pressure, help us to remember that running is not just about performance, but also brilliant for our wellbeing.”

How fast should you run a recovery run?

How fast or far you run is subjective to the exercise you did the day before. You want to aim for about 70% of your normal pace. “In short, go for what feels comfortable,” says Maskell. “You should be able to speak easily throughout your recovery run.”

Another general rule of thumb is to aim for half the time as a typical run. Run a distance that feels comfortable for you and do not be discouraged if you need to stop and walk.

Run versus rest

In a nutshell, physios and coaches like Maskell and Mace highly recommend doing some form of active recovery after a high-intensity run or workout, whether it’s a gentle jog or using a cross-trainer. It might not necessarily “speed up” your recovery, but it’ll get your muscles warm, help you to avoid overtraining and develop better aerobic fitness in the long run.

What exercise you do depends on how often you run. While Mace promotes recovery runs for those running four+ times a week, anything less than that warrants finding an alternative exercise. “If you only run three times a week, you have to make sure they’re absolute quality, and a recovery run isn’t a quality run,” she says. “You can get your recovery benefit from doing something else.”

Every body recovers differently, so just remember to listen to yours. If going on a recovery run means running through an injury, sit this one out. If you can’t speak during your recovery run, walk instead. If your body really wants to rest, let it. It’s all still better than no recovery at all. 

Boost your recovery and injury prevention by taking one of our 15-minute mobility classes

Images: Getty

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