Whether you get a workout from a running coach, the internet (you can check out all my workouts here), or make it up yourself, the focus is always on the pace of the hard intervals. This is logical – the hard intervals are where you want to work the right physiological system. You want to run hard enough to get faster but not so hard that you are unable to finish the workout or cause injury.
The appropriate pacing of hard intervals is its own whole topic. Distance, number of repetitions, goals, current fitness, terrain, and other factors all impact the goal pace of a speed workout. But what often gets neglected is the pacing of the recovery intervals during an interval workout.
The faster I get and the harder I train, the slower my recovery intervals become. I recently ran a cruise interval workout of 8 x 1K (~0.60 mile) at 8K-10K pace. I averaged a 7:00-7:05/mile pace for each kilometer repeat…and averaged a 9:15-10:00/mile pace for the 2 minute recovery intervals.
Bear in mind, this post reflects my coaching philosophy. I prefer speed workouts with active recovery rather than complete rest, and I also train mostly marathoners and half marathoners, not many 5K or shorter distances. Your coach may have a different approach and always listen to your coach first.
Active Recovery Intervals vs. Complete Rest
Active recovery is when you jog or walk between the hard intervals. The goal of active recovery intervals is to keep moving during the interval while allowing your muscles to flush out any lactate and your breathing to return to normal to help your muscles recover before the next hard interval.
Running at a low intensity during the rest intervals also increases the overall aerobic demands of the workout, which means it helps build your specific endurance, whether you are racing a 5K or marathon. Because of how it builds specific endurance, when your goal is to run faster in races of 5K and longer, active recovery is the best choice. You can also add in extra mileage with recovery intervals; those 2-5 minute recovery jogs add up over the course of 3-12 repeats!
Complete rest is when you stand completely still or maybe walk a bit during the recovery intervals. While these allow your heart rate to lower more quickly and for an effective resupply of phosphocreatine to your muscles (which is a source of energy for anaerobic running), they can also cause muscle tightness. Complete rest is best for when you are aiming to run the repeats as fast as possible or when you are running very short repeats such as 100-200 meters.
The difference between complete rest and active recovery isn’t just physical – it’s mental as well (isn’t all of running?). Mentally, standing rest is challenging because you have to start running hard again – rather than shifting paces while still moving forward.
How to Pace during Active Recovery Intervals
Maintaining a truly low intensity on the recovery intervals is essential, but pushing too hard is a common mistake that many recreational runners make. It’s difficult to shift gears from hard to easy and, if you’re prone to the social media comparison trap, you may push the pace on the recovery intervals for a faster average pace on your run.
But if you run too fast on your recovery interval, even at your normal easy pace, you may not recover enough to push at the appropriate pace for the work intervals. To maximize the recovery intervals, you need to run at a truly recovery pace – an effort that practically feels like jogging or a slow shuffle. In terms of RPE (1-10 scale), this should feel like 1-2.
One of the most reliable markers of whether or not you are properly pacing your recovery intervals is how your workout goes. If you struggle to complete the entire set of reps or slow down as you go, you may want to try slowing down your recovery intervals even more.
Of course, specific marathon and half marathon workouts such as wave tempos increase the intensity of the active recovery interval, but the hard intervals are at a much more controlled effort than the hard intervals of a speed workout done at mile to 10K pace.
Do you take complete rest or active recovery during interval workouts?
What’s your workout today?