The Art and Science of the Recovery Run

The Art and Science of Recovery Runs

The term “recovery run” frequently appears in training plans, often with differing means. Is it an easy run or something different? Does a recovery run help with recovery? Let’s dig into the art of the recovery run and how it can help you run faster in the long term. 

What is a Recovery Run?

Essentially, recovery runs are easy runs that are slower than your normal easy pace. You run very slow in relation to your race paces on those days. The run may feel barely faster than a walk. You may feel like you are just shuffling along. 

However, a recovery run does not actually accomplish recovery (see below). For recreational runners, you cannot substitute a weekly rest day with a recovery run. (Elites do, but they are also paid to take naps during the day and are genetic outliers who spent years adapting to high mileage.) A recovery run does not make you recover faster – it lets you train more without compounding recovery demands.

How Long Does a Recovery Run Last?

Recovery runs will have a limit of duration. In general, a recovery run should be shorter than most of your other runs. Once you hit a certain time on your feet, a run ceases to be a recovery run no matter how easy you run it. I recommend capping at 60 minutes. You do not want to deplete any glycogen stores on this run, which could happen over 75-90 minutes (especially if you go too fast). You want to minimize any musculoskeletal breakdown on a recovery run.

Importantly, a recovery run should not feel tiring. You want to feel like you could keep going. If you start to feel tired or feel your form falling apart, cut the run short.

What Does a Recovery Run Achieve?

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: a recovery run does not actually help you recover. Rather, a recovery run is adds training volume without prolonging recovery after a quality workout. A recovery run adds aerobic volume to your training without incurring further fatigue. Recovery itself only comes from sleep, nutrition, a proper modulation of training load, and time. 

 It is also a complete and utter myth that recovery runs flush out “lactic acid”. Your blood lactate and H+ levels return to homeostasis shortly after the cessation of exercise – even a hard session. The reason you feel good after a recovery run is that you got some oxygen-rich blood flowing to the damaged muscles; and, simply, because movement feels good. For this reason, some coaches refer to it as a “regeneration run.”

Some training theory does suggest that recovery runs enhance the supercompensation effect (see Science of Running by Steve Magness). Supercompenation is when the body surpasses its previous initial point of fitness, after the application of stress/training stimuli and appropriate recovery. In theory, slowing down and doing a true recovery run could make you faster in the long-term, even compared to a normal easy run. 

My theory is that recovery runs also prevent the psychological causes of overtraining or burnout in athletes. A recovery run is a time to cover up your watch, go slow, and enjoy the scenery. Especially on the day after a mentally demanding quality session, turning off your brain and running super slow can actually reduce stress and reconnect you with your love of running. 

How to Pace a Recovery Run

You cannot really go too slow on a recovery run. However, it is far too easy to go too fast on your recovery runs, which essentially prolongs recovery from your previous quality session and then totally negates the purpose of the recovery run. If you have any doubt in your mind about your pacing, slow down more. 

The renowned marathon coach Renato Canova considered a recovery run to be 80% or slower than your goal marathon pace. For a 3:30 marathoner, this would be a pace of 10:00/mile or slower. That may seem very slow to you – and that’s the point.

Most coaches recommend pacing easy runs at 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace. A recovery run will be even slower than that; approximately 2 minutes per mile or more slower than marathon pace, or more than 3 minutes per mile slower than 5K pace. Individual runners will vary; some will be slower, others slightly faster. But if you are faster than 1.5 minutes of marathon pace or 2.5 minutes of 5K pace, you are probably running your recovery runs too fast. 

If you are training based on perceived effort, recovery pace requires not much more effort than a walk. It’s a true shuffle or light jog. You should be able to converse with ease (more ease than a normal easy run) and feel very restrained. 

For novice runners or those in the initial stages of returning from injury, running itself may still be biomechanically stressful. In this case, a recovery walk achieves the desired purpose. 

Now, it is worth noting that your individual biomechanics and muscle composition come into consideration. This is not common; most runners can run slow enough on their recovery runs. The issue is running form. When doing a recovery run, be mindful to maintain a relatively quick cadence. Your cadence will be lower than on workouts, but it shouldn’t become significantly lower. You also want to maintain a forward lean; avoid leaning back in your stride as you slow down.

However, a small percentage of runners may find that recovery run pace causes them to have poor form. Fast-twitch runners can lose muscle tension and feel worse after recovery runs since recovery runs utilize only slow-twitch muscle fibers. For these runners, they may find it easier to structure a recovery run by adding in walk intervals to keep their heart rate and breathing rate under control. 

(I will note: most trained long-distance runners are NOT fast-twitch runners. Fast-twitch does not mean “I like the 5K more than the marathon.” Fast-twitch means sprinters, ball sport athletes, or resistance trained athletes. If you are new to running and coming from those backgrounds, use walk intervals to help you slow down. Generally speaking, FT runners excel at truly short distance running of distances under the mile.)

Will a Recovery Run Make Me Slower?

Running slower does not make you slower. If anything, running too fast too often will make you slower. In the words of ultrarunning coach David Roche, “Slow now begets fast later.”

One reason recovery runs do not make you slower is because you do not do a slow shuffle every day. A well-rounded training plan includes easy runs, quality sessions (hills, intervals, tempo, etc), long runs, strides/hill sprints, and recovery runs. Any variation in your training will recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers and enforce good biomechanics, and so you then really do not need to worry about going too slow on recovery runs. 

The only real way a recovery run will make you slower is if you run it too fast. If you get too caught up in your splits, you end up in no man’s land, where you aren’t recovering from workouts and are plateauing in your training. 

When to Use Recovery Runs:

Oftentimes, a recovery run is not dictated by a plan (although I do program them in for some runners in specific training blocks); it is something your body’s feedback ultimately dictates. 

  • You did not sleep well or are under high amounts of life stress. 
  • The day after a quality run (interval, tempo, long, etc) or a hard lift session
  • The day before a long run, particularly a long run with quality built in.
  • When returning to running after a race. 
  • As a second run of the day (if doing doubles).
  • The day before a race (shakeout run).
  • Any time you feel like it. Ignore your GPS and listen to your body.
  • Whenever you feel like slowing down more on an easy day

Most likely, recovery runs will be periodized in your training. During a base or maintenance phase, you may not need recovery runs (although there is no harm in doing them!). The more intense your training becomes in either volume or intensity (or both), the more often you will include recovery sessions.

Likewise, high volume athletes may rely more on recovery runs than low-volume runners. If you are only running three or four days per week, you may not do any recovery runs. If you are running five or more days per week, you may do a recovery run or two in the week. Very high volume runners who include double runs may do even more recovery runs.

When Not to Go on a Recovery Run

  • The day after a marathon or ultra. You have a significant amount of muscle damage going on, to the point where lab tests could show temporarily increased cardiac troponin levels (indicating possible temporary inflammation of the heart). Go for a walk instead and let your body recover! (You can read more on how to recover from a marathon in this post.)
  • When you are injured. Remember, a recovery run does not cause recovery; it simply allows you to train without prolonging your need for recovery. If you experience a running injury, you should cross-train instead. 
  • When you are sick. Running will not help you recover from illness sooner. Instead, follow these guidelines for running when sick.

By making recovery runs part of your training, you can promote better aerobic development, promote better training adaptations, reduce injury risk, and minimize mental burnout. So embrace the shuffle!

Sign Up for My Newsletter for More Running Tips

* indicates required

Share this post

17 Responses

  1. Excellent points, Laura! I fully agree, easy runs should be uncomfortably easy, hard runs uncomfortably hard.
    The only thing that perhaps needs to be changed is the term “recovery run”. It should be called “easy run”. I see too many new runners on social media who seem to be confused and substitute a rest day with a recovery run.

  2. Love this! A few weeks ago Judy posted asking about recovery runs, and I tried to explain some of this but you did a much better job that I did in my reply! It can be deceiving that they are called recovery runs when they don’t actually help you recover. Although I do feel better after a very easy run following a harder workout! My biggest challenge is trying to do recovery runs with the stroller, because they are never quite easy enough. On Sundays its nice when I can alternate pushing the stroller with my husband, which gives me more of a break.

  3. Haha – myth buster! I’ve always thought a recovery run flushes out lactic acid!! Thanks for clearing that up for me and for discussing recovery runs in such depth.

    1. It’s an old myth that has stuck around! As physiologists understand lactic acid more, though, we learn that it’s not responsible for soreness – and not as bad as once thought.

    1. After a long race (marathon or longer), I definitely do recommend a complete rest day because of the muscle damage. But after a shorter race, it can feel good to get moving!

  4. I think it could be argued that “recovery runs” DO help you recover- as in, movement=bloodflow=healing. It’s an active recovery as opposed to passive recovery. I agree that they can’t take the place of rest and sleep of course. I first started doing them last year and had to constantly check my garmin and force myself to slow down- but now that I’m used to it, that easy pace feels comfortable!

    1. They do enhance recovery! But they cannot replace true recovery aids such as sleep, rest days, allowing time before the next hard workout, and nutrition. That’s great you got such a grasp on them – once you learn the pace, it actually feels quite good!

  5. This was a really fascinating read, Laura! I usually like to do a walk rather than a run to recover, but this makes a lot of sense. Although I’ll probably still just walk. 🙂

    It’s interesting, I know one coach that said you could hurt yourself by running to slowly (running too slowly with other runners, that is) but personally I’ve never found that to be the case. Although I’ve heard others that say they have.

  6. Great info here, Laura! I learned, a long time ago, that my body seems to recover better when in motion. I keep my recovery runs very short…1-3 miles at the max, and the pace is s.l.o.w. Like with all things running, we got to find what works best for each of us 😉

  7. My mind is blown by this post! I really thought that recovery runs were supposed to help you recover, but what you’re saying makes so much more sense. I will have to remember to try a recovery run when I’m feeling stressed/lack of sleep!

  8. Actually, I am pretty good about recovery runs. It’s been very helpful to get in a slow run to keep my ankle limber. For me, movement is always better than no movement to stop any stiffness and soreness.

  9. Thank you for helping to explain what a recovery run entails and why it doesn’t exactly help the body “recover” in the literal sense. It’s a great method for those that are athletic, however, and should be utilized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *