Marathon Monday: Recovery Runs

Recovery Runs Marathon Training

Today’s post is part of an on-going series on all things marathon training. New to This Runner’s Recipes? Catch up on all previous Marathon Monday posts here

We all know that runner, whether it is a friend, someone we follow on Instagram or a running blog, or even our past selves, who run every run at goal pace or faster, and then struggles on race day and finishes significantly slower. This seems especially true for many marathoners, no matter how experienced they are.  Seemingly, it would make sense that the more often you run at goal marathon pace, the easier this pace will feel on race day. However, quite the opposite is true: too frequent training at race pace will only hinder recovery and pose risk of overtraining. Essentially, doing a majority of your runs at or above marathon pace will leave your race in your training, rather than saving your best for race day.

While marathon pace should feel easy during the first several miles of the race, it should not necessarily feel easy during training. Physiologically speaking, marathon pace (also known as steady state pace) is at approximately 80%-87% of your maximum heart rate, which means it is at a moderately-hard effort and you can only speak in short sentences. In contrast, easy runs are at 65%-75% of your maximum heart rate (with recovery runs at the lower end of the range), are at an easy effort, and are so comfortable that you could have a conversation.

Recovery Runs Marathon Training

What are Recovery Runs?

A recovery run is an easy run done at the slower end of that range. By definition, a recovery run is a short, slow run the day after a hard run, at the least one minute per mile slower than marathon pace, but more likely closer to two minutes per mile slower than marathon pace. If need be, you can and should go even slower! Oftentimes, the faster you push yourself in key workouts, the slower you should run on recovery days. Recovery runs do not necessarily enhance recovery, although the movement can make stiff legs feel better. Rather, a recovery run is run slow enough where it does not create the need for additional recovery, thus allowing you to train without hindering your next hard workout.

Why should you include them in your training? Recovery runs allow you to add training volume without increasing training stress, help prevent overtraining, improve your running economy, increase your fatigue resistance, and will prepare you to run your best marathon.

As a note, if you are not training for a race or in base building, you may not need recovery runs since you are not doing hard workouts. While most of base building runs are still in an easy range, you can push the higher end of the easy range since the overall intensity and volume is lower than during training.

Balancing Training Stress with Training Volume

No matter what distance you are training for, you gain speed and endurance through two factors: training stress and training volume. Training stress occurs during what most coaches call key workouts: speed intervals, tempo runs, and long runs. Speed and tempo workouts create stress on the cardiovascular system and muscular system with high intensity, while the stress from long runs is due to their extended duration.

Training volume, meanwhile, builds your aerobic fitness without pushing your body to the same point of exhaustion as a key workout does. Training volume improves your running economy by increasing the efficiency of the communication between the brain and the skeletal muscles. The higher your running economy, the less oxygen you need to to maintain a certain pace. So, regardless of the pace you run, the more you run in training (up until a certain point of diminishing returns), the easier marathon pace will feel on race day.

Especially in marathon training, you must balance these two factors. Too much training stress and you won’t be able to run enough miles to prepare your body and your mind for 26.2 miles; too little training stress and you won’t get faster. By adding recovery runs, you can safely increase your mileage and still have enough energy to run hard efforts during your key workouts.

When you’re training for a shorter race, such as a 5K, you will benefit more from higher training stress and lower training volume (i.e. more speed workouts but less weekly mileage). You still should include recovery runs, but you may not need them as frequently as marathon runners. In half and full marathon training, however, you need to run a higher weekly mileage to prepare your body for the demands of 26.2 miles and thus need recovery runs a couple times per week to add that mileage. No matter what distance you are training for, recovery runs should match your hard workouts in a 1:1 ratio. Recovery runs correspond to your overall weekly mileage, so a 5K runner may do 3-4 mile recovery runs, while a marathoner may do recovery runs of 6-8 miles.

Prevent Overtraining

Overtraining is such a serious but common issue for runner that Dr. Tim Noakes devotes an entire chapter in his Lore of Running to overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome warrants a whole post on its own, as physiologists and coaches are still striving to completely understand it. In a nutshell, overtraining occurs when you put too much training stress on your body with not enough rest and not enough time for adaptation. You experience plateaus in your performance, excessive fatigue, headaches, GI distress, loss of appetite and libido, and weight loss, among other ailments. Overtraining weakens your immune systems and leaves your muscles in an unrepaired state, thus rendering you more susceptible to illness and injury. Even if you don’t end up sick or injured, if you go too hard and too fast too frequently, you will exhaust yourself by race day and finish much slower than you planned for. Your body can only sustain so much running at marathon pace or faster; if you push yourself to run at goal race pace for most of your training runs, you will be too tired and not recovered enough to sustain that pace on race day.

Recovery runs marathon training

Training yourself to your physical peak, especially for a distance as intrinsically demanding as the marathon, requires you to walk a fine line between the appropriate level of training stress and overtraining. When you are running five or more days a week and logging a high number of miles per week in marathon training, one of the best ways to prevent overtraining (ensuring that you have a proper running base built) is to take your easy runs truly easy and add recovery runs in the days after key workouts. If you run every run too hard, you will only compound muscular damage and prevent your muscles from healing and getting stronger. Essentially, recovery runs are key for logging enough training miles without plateauing and actually getting slower due to overtraining. 

(Not sure how easy to take your recovery runs? Find out exactly how to measure your heart rate, pace, and breathing in this post from Tina Muir.)

Improve Running Economy and Increase Fatigue Resistance

As discussed above, one of the best ways to increase your running economy is to run more. As also discussed above, running too much at too high of an intensity (at or above marathon pace, roughly) will lead to overtraining, plateauing, and/or injury. Thus, recovery runs will continue to build your running economy without piling on too much training fatigue. In addition to increasing the efficiency of your brain’s communication with your muscles, running more simply makes running easier and more natural. Recovery runs will get you used to spending more time on your feet (which is vital for running for 3-5 hours during a marathon), will improve your form, and will teach you to run on tired legs.

Recovery runs are always run when you are mentally and physically fatigued from the previous day’s workout. By running on tired legs, you challenge your neuromuscular system to perform despite fatigue. This in turn makes running on rested legs more efficient and easier. If you know you can run a 9:00-10:00 minute mile on fatigued legs, then it is easier both mentally and physically to run an 8:00 minute mile on tapered and rested legs.

In addition to making you a more efficient runner, recovery runs will increase your mental and physical resistance to fatigue. You not only make your legs more efficient at running while tired; you also teach your brain that you can run when you experience discomfort, fatigue, and the urge to stop and rest. This is vital for marathoners, as inevitably fatigue will occur during the later miles of the race and you must be mentally capable of overriding that fatigue to achieve your goal, whether your goal is to finish or PR.

In summary, you have nothing to lose by running some of your runs at a very slow and easy pace, but you risk a lot by avoiding them in your training and running too fast. Training every day at race pace or faster will only lead to overtraining, diminishing returns, and essentially leaving your race in your training. You may not receive as many social media likes when you share a slow run, but which is better: that brief ego boost or success on race day?

Portland Marathon Training Week 7 

Portland Marathon Training Hansons Marathon Method

Monday: 9 miles on the treadmill, 1% incline: 2 mile warm up (9:25, 8:54), speed ladder of 400, 800, 1200, 1600, 1200, 800, 400 m (400 m recovery jog) at 1:44, 3:29, 5:14, 6:59, 5:14, 3:29, 1:44, 1 mile cool down (9:23). Immediately followed up with some foam rolling. 

This was a hard workout because of the 10 mile hike the day before, but I pushed through and got it done!

Tuesday: AM: 5 miles easy, 9:26/mile. PM: 30 minutes strength training.

Wednesday: AM: 10 miles with 7 miles at goal marathon pace (7:46/mile average). PM: 30 miles of Pilates.

I’m still working on trying to hit 7:55-8:00min miles for these runs, but the pace felt comfortable and I could have sustained it for several more miles.

Thursday: AM: 7 miles easy, 9:42/mile. 6 with 1-8% hills on the treadmill, 1 outside with Charlie. PM: plyometrics and core work. 

Friday: 8 miles easy, 8:59/mile. 

Saturday: AM: 14 mile long run, 8:22/mile. PM: 10 mile hike, 1500 foot elevation gain, at Wallace Lake in the Cascades.

Sunday: Absolute rest. 

53 miles for the week of running, 10 miles of hiking. 

[Tweet “Slow down to train smart and run faster by adding recovery runs to your #marathon #training via @thisrunrecipes #fitfluential #runchat”]

Questions of the Day:
How was your training this week? Did anyone race?
How often do you do recovery runs? Do you have a hard time slowing yourself down?
What did you do this weekend?

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18 Responses

  1. I have had a much harder time slowing myself down lately without really “training” for anything. While I don’t necessarily need to worry as much since I’m not training and my mileage is on the lower side, I think it would be good to get used to running slower paces again as my mileage builds. Sometimes I find that my form breaks down when I run slow than 9 minute miles, and I just feel more comfortable running faster than that. But I know based on my race times and heart race that my recovery runs should be closer to 10 minute miles.
    Another great week of training of you! Glad you were able to get in a full day of rest!

    1. Thank you! I think that’s so smart what you’re doing by practicing running slow so it’s more natural once you build mileage. The form thing is so hard – I sometimes feel like I’m just shuffling along during recovery runs!

  2. Oh you KNOW I love this, and thank you for sharing! Awesome post lady, and right on point. I love how you broke this down, very helpful! I will pledge to do it if you will 🙂

    1. Thank you, Tina! And yes, I pledge to recovery runs – I actually find myself enjoying them! It’s so inspiring and a good reminder to see elites like you running slow on your easy days (even though your slow is still fast for many of us!).

  3. A huge mistake so many new marathon trainees (and others, of course) make is that they fear running slow. I heard a great perspective on all that this weekend from Jason Karp that I can’t wait to share with my clients and on the blog!

    1. It definitely is – people think that if they run slow in training it means they’ll run slow on race day. Quite the opposite! I’m excited to read your post on what you learned!

  4. Great week of training! I ran a ‘just for fun’ 10k race yesterday and really enjoyed it! I was just thinking about my recovery runs so this post is coming at the perfect time. Great information! I struggle to keep my recovery runs easy. I usually start pushing it when I need to just keep it easy. When I went out for my easy 4 miles this morning I was mindful of just keeping it at easy pace and need to continue doing this. It makes a lot of sense that our bodies need this easy run as part of regular training.

  5. Awesome week of training! I used to have a very hard time embracing the recovery runs. I finally found that my body responds better to higher milage at a slower pace so I typically do all my runs with the exception of my long run and my one speed work run at recovery… I think it is crucial, especially in the beginning of training to allow your body to adapt to the increase in time on your feet and milage.

  6. I actually think most of my runs are recovery runs lol. I used to think high mileage was everything but it’s only been recently that I’ve started to really incorporate some speed work and tempo runs into my weeks and I don’t do it enough!

    1. You run so much you need those recovery runs! Also, I’m pretty sure that when you start adding in more speed work you’re going to become like Olympic level fast, you’re already so speedy!

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