“Should I stand or jog in between intervals during speedwork?” This is a common question from runners of all experience levels. Depending on the coach you ask, you get a different answer.
The appropriate pacing of hard intervals is important for a productive workout. However, what often gets neglected is the pacing of the recovery intervals during an interval workout. As a coach, I’ve seen athletes lose steam in an interval workout because they take their recovery jogs too hard. A recovery interval is just that: a deliberate time to let your heart rate and breathing rate lower in between the main work intervals.
Importantly, this post is discussing interval training within the context of long-distance running. If you are training for a short distance or sprint event, the recovery intervals will be different because of the involvement of the phosphocreatine system for energy production. The ATP-CP system takes a longer time to recover, so sprinters will usually have generous standing recoveries in between intervals.
Active Recovery vs. Passive Recovery
There are three methods of recovery during interval running. You can jog, walk, or stand in between the hard intervals.
Active recovery is when you jog or walk between the hard intervals. Active recovery encourages blood flow, which eliminates fatigue-inducing metabolites such as inorganic phosphate more quickly.
Jogging the recovery intervals also increases the overall aerobic demands of the workout. Even at a slow jog, your body still needs to produce energy via oxidative phosphorylation.
Passive recovery is when you stand still during the recovery intervals. Standing rest allows 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). However, some runners may experience muscle tightness.
The difference between active and passive recovery isn’t just physical. There are mental differences in reported exertion and in confidence-building. Knowing that you can complete a hard workout without dropping your hands on your knees between each interval is a confidence builder.
Should You Jog, Walk, or Stand in Between Intervals during Speedwork?
A 2022 study in European Journal of Applied Physiology examined whether active or passive recovery is most effective. The researchers compared blood lactate levels, oxygen consumption (VO2), rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, and countermovement jump between runners doing active jogs and passive rest after 2-min intervals at >90% VO2max (the “red zone”).
Neuromuscular response declined with both active and passive recovery, as demonstrated by the countermovement jump. The type of recovery did not affect time spent at intensity; both groups spent equal time running hard.
However, oxygen consumption, blood lactate levels, and RPE did differ between the two groups. The active recovery group had higher mean oxygen consumption, which means they had a slightly higher aerobic stimulus. The passive recovery group reached a higher peak oxygen consumption, but spent less time total in the “red zone.” Lactate (which is a proxy measure for fatigue-causing metabolites) was lowered more in the active recovery group. However, the passive recovery group reached higher peak oxygen consumption and reported a lower RPE for the session.
The answer on whether to run, walk, or stand during recovery intervals comes down to your goals. Due to the higher mean oxygen consumption and more time in the red zone, active recovery is favorable for building endurance. Active recovery may be more beneficial during high but not near-maximal intensity interval sessions. If you are running near-maximal intensity, passive recovery is more favorable because of how it lowers RPE yet raises peak oxygen consumption.
However, in scenarios where slightly lower RPE is beneficial, passive recovery may be preferred. Novice runners may want to have lower RPE in an interval workout, so they may benefit from passive recovery or walking. In summer, when the heat elevates RPE, walking or passive recovery may be helpful.
What Pace Should You Run during Recovery Intervals?
One common mistake I see runners make is going too fast on their recovery intervals. They keep the momentum going for the first interval without deliberately slowing down. Or, they try to maintain a certain average pace to look good on Strava. However, going too fast on the recovery intervals can cause fatigue later in the workout.
Recovery intervals have a deliberate purpose. Unless stated otherwise, the goal is to bring down your heart rate, steady your breathing rate, and clear some accumulating metabolites. For this goal, slower is better. To maximize the recovery intervals, you need to run at a true recovery effort, no faster. This effort practically feels like jogging or a shuffle. Aim to run slower than your normal easy effort.
Ultimately, the recovery interval is not the driver of adaptation. The work interval is the stimulus. As a 2019 review in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance suggested, recovery intervals are meant to allow you to maintain the desired workload of the session. The higher the intensity of the work intervals, the slower the rest intervals may need to be to faciliate recovery. If you need to walk to hit the desired workload, then do so.
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. (If you are struggling with your hard workouts despite properly paced recovery intervals, you may be running your speed workouts too fast.)