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As runners, we have inherently obsessive personalities. We’re always looking to push the envelope with our training paces and make each workout better than the one before. Unfortunately, if you don’t give your body the rest and recovery it needs on easy days, you’ll wind up overtrained, burnt out, or injured. As a running coach, I am an ardent proponent of maximizing each day that you run and making the most of out every mile on the training schedule. While it’s contrary to a runner’s obsessive nature, sometimes maximizing your training means taking a slow recovery day.
What is an easy recovery run
A recovery run is a training day that is designed to facilitate recovery by delivering oxygen and nutrients to the muscles damaged during running. The main purpose of a recovery run is restoration, not building aerobic strength.
Most runners are surprised with how slow they must run to execute a recovery day. A true recovery run can sometimes feel almost painfully slow. However, a good rule of thumb for a recovery run is that you can never run too slow, but you can easily run too fast to realize maximum benefits. When in doubt, slow down.
To help guide you, a runner training for a half marathon should run their recovery runs about 1-2 minutes slower than their goal half marathon pace in order to maintain a true recovery pace. For a marathoner, recovery pace is about 60-90 seconds slower per mile than marathon goal pace. For a 5k runner, this pace would be about 2-3 minutes slower than race pace.
How does a recovery run work?
After you perform a hard workout, your muscles have small muscle tears from the forceful contractions required to run at faster and faster speeds. These muscles tears are what cause muscle pain and what make training the day after a hard workout difficult. The body heals these small micro tears through the circulatory system (blood), which delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that need repair. Once these micro tears are healed, the muscle will be stronger and allow you to run faster and longer.
Slow running increases blood flow to these muscles, helping clear out waste products while delivering fresh oxygen and nutrients. If you run too hard on an easy day, you create more muscle tears than you’re fixing, so it is critical you keep your recovery day as easy as possible. Interestingly, aerobic development at the cellular level is almost exactly the same whether you’re running 30 seconds slower than marathon pace or 2 minutes slower than marathon pace. The only difference is that you create more muscle damage at 30 seconds slower than marathon pace compared to 2 minutes slower.
When should you include a recovery run in your training plan?
Recovery runs should be implemented between hard workout sessions. For example, if you have a hard workout on Tuesday, you should include a recovery run on either Wednesday or Thursday (or both, depending on your mileage).
Too many runners complete a hard session on Tuesday and then inadvertently push the pace on Wednesday or Thursday. Consequently, they cannot run as fast as they are capable of during their next workout. Thus, they’ve minimized the benefits of the workout and only slowed down their progression.
However, if you give your body a chance to fully recover, you can run faster during your next workout or long run and maximize the physiological benefits of the specific workout.
Why easy running over cross training?
While cross training also helps increase blood flow, most cross training modalities do not target the running specific muscles which need the most nutrients. Sure, some machines simulate running, but to maximize the benefits, you need to target the exact muscles involved in running as specifically as possible.
Of course, beginner runners need to build up to the point where they can safely add mileage to their training schedule, but the salient point about recovery runs remain in tact. To maximize the benefits of your workouts, keep your recovery days easy and only go hard during workout days.
So, the next time you have a recovery day scheduled on your training plan, make sure to take full advantage and run as slow as your body needs to recover that day.
Do you ever push the pace on your easy days? Have any tricks to help slow yourself down?