Recovery Intervals

Recovery Intervals: Slowing Down to Run Faster

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.

Recovery Intervals

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. 

Recovery Intervals

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.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday

Do you take complete rest or active recovery during interval workouts?
What’s your workout today?


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33 Responses

  1. I prefer to take active recovery during hard workouts. I would find it too difficult to completely stop and then start running again! I also find that the harder I am working during the hard part of the workout, the slower my recovery intervals need to be.

  2. This is such an intellectual approach to Running. I mean it makes very good intellectual cents 🙂 and now I’m wondering if it would apply to my training to walk a full marathon? I bet it would. I could slow my walk to walk faster!

    1. Especially when they are time based, make the most of those easy minutes! And yeah, it’s like that or resting between lifting – the recovery is important and like hitting reset!

  3. If I stop during intervals (even to walk) I know I won’t start again! So, I keep on moving. This also helps me mentally because I tell myself to push through which I always have to do during a race. Sometimes I just want to stop and walk in a race, but I tell myself to just keep moving! Doing that in practice helps so much.

  4. It’s been sooooo long since I’ve done speed work…does my body even remember how? LOL.

    I always do active recovery. I don’t like to completely rest because the sudden stopping and starting of intervals is too jarring on my body, and I feel that having to keep moving between reps helps better prepare me to push through fatigue in a race. I guess I’m prone to running the intervals too hard because let’s just say, I never had a problem slowing waaaay down for my recovery intervals on the track!

    1. It’s a balance – you don’t want to run the intervals so hard that you get injured or are counterproductive to the purpose of the workout, but not so easy that you breeze through the recovery interval!

  5. I remember these from Hanson’s! Between my repeats (on the treadmill), I’d stop the treadmill, get off and gasp and sputter until I could catch my breath and then I’d hop back on to walk for 30 seconds and then I’d slowly ease back into a slow jog before I started the next interval. Some people say I shouldn’t have walked at all. I’m not sure.

    1. I have encountered both sides of the argument – some say having to stop and walk is a sign of pushing too hard, while others say it’s okay. One of my beefs with Hansons though is the emphasis on goal pace rather than current fitness- you could be training VO2max or something in between when the workout should be at threshold pace.

  6. I’m definitely an active recovery girl. When I take standing rests, I always just want to quit. I stand there and think about how hard I have to run again when I do run again. I’d prefer to do active recovery and just get it all over with! I do agree with slowing down the recoveries, especially in the beginning when you THINK you are recovering slow enough but you may not be.

    1. Standing or even walking just signals to the brain that it’s time to stop running, it seems. And I agree – I feel like those first few intervals are all about control, both for the hard and recovery parts.

    1. The RPE helps so much for the recovery intervals! The pacing is trickier since the hard intervals are so tiring (and the recovery intervals will get slower and slower as a workout goes) but with RPE it’s all about using breathing and talking as a signal.

  7. Great advice! I prefer active recovery too.. and my recoveries are sloooow, like yours. I had one coach on a running team I was on in Houston who liked us to rest between track repeats and my body responded okay, but I definitely prefer using that time to jog and get the overall mileage a bit higher.

    1. Thank you! The overall boost to mileage is nice, and it helps pad out that easy mileage to then be able to do more speed work while maintaining the right ratio of hard and easy running.

  8. I actually prefer stopping to active recovery but I know that’s not how things should go, so I don’t. Haha. Plus I listen to my coach because he rocks. 🙂

  9. I like active recovery too. I feel when I completely stop in between intervals, I tense up and get antsy. At least with continuing to move at a slower pace, the blood flow is going to my extremities and I’m not nervously staring at my watch till when I have to kick it up again.

  10. I have recently been frustrated with my speed work getting slower. Over the last few interval training sessions I’ve done, my average pace per speed interval has become slower by 3s/km. I’ve been thinking it’s because the days were getting hotter or I wasn’t sleeping as well or I wasn’t eating as well or was overdoing it. Until I saw this post I’d never worked out my average recovery pace, figuring I was always at a slow jog and that was sufficient. So I checked. And as it turns out, I’ve been letting my recovery interval pace creep up such that on my last workout I was running 10s/km faster on average during the recoveries than I had been before. Could it be? I’m now curious to force myself to do the REALLY slow recovery and see what happens.

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