What are they and why should you think about doing them?
So I don’t know about other people, but I remember seeing someone posting a recovery run on Strava, which to me looked like any other run for starters, and depending on the person it may look like a ridiculously fast run compared to what I can do. I’d sit there thinking how on Earth does running more miles (and at that speed in some cases) help them recover? That’s nuts, surely it’s going to make them more tired and risk them getting injured.
However, as I’ve then been bitten by the running bug and started doing increasingly more miles per week, I’ve definitely been guilty of calling a 5k odd run the day after a long run a recovery run. But was it really a recovery run and where did the term actually come from? I also started to question whether a recovery run is essential, could it be a different activity?
So, I did some research and I’ve picked up more knowledge as I’ve learned more about coaching and thought I’d share my personal views and some useful articles. However, the first point I would make is that everyone is different and there are a variety of views and, as is often the case, the scientific studies available can produce different results. Therefore, as always, personally I would recommend people sensibly experiment to find out what works for them. The information below is based on my personal opinion and from my own experiences, research and reading and I’m simply sharing on that basis.
Why should you even consider doing a recovery run?
When you’re out for a training run, especially a long one, you’re deliberately damaging your muscle fibres with a view to them repairing stronger. That’s a very simplistic explanation, but with all exercise, that’s essentially what we’re trying to do. Damage the muscle fibres so they come back stronger.
They will heal on their own, but most of us are keen for them to heal and improve as fast as possible. One factor that improves the speed your muscles take to repair is blood flow. Compression can improve blood flow and promote healing, but another way is to exercise and push an increased blood flow around your body. You’re a runner, so obviously you think I’ll go out and run to achieve this.
Some elite distance runners have really raised the profile of recovery runs. It’s worth noting straight away though, that an elite runner like Sally Kipyego, who runs a 10,000m race at sub 5 minute mile pace, pootles along in a recovery run at 8:30 minute mile pace, often slower. Pretty much half her race pace – definitely not a fast pace. How do you know the speed you should go then? There is a view that there is a formula calculating that you should run at a certain heart rate for a recovery run, as you can read in this runners world article – www.runnersworld.com/training/a25347729/jogging-a-recovery-run/ But we’re not elite runners, some of us may not be serious enough to bother with such things. Therefore what should we do?
For me, if I’m doing a recovery run, I’m increasingly working on simply running a lot slower than a normal run, but balancing that with not going so slow the pace causes me to hurt myself. For me that would usually be 25% slower than what I consider to be my norm. It’s a tough thing to do, my natural tendency is to slip into my ‘normal’ running pace. This got me thinking about alternative options, are there any for starters?
I believe there are, but recognise they’re not for everyone. One option could be a bike ride. Not going hell for leather, because you need to remember the idea is you’re looking to promote blood flow through those damaged muscles to help them heal, not break and damage those fibres even more. Again, I find this hard as I tend to get carried away and push too hard. You might choose to do some form of circuit training or gym/class work outs. I would be concerned that it isn’t a recovery activity in those instances though.
My solution, and it is a personal one, is swimming. There’s a fair bit of research that suggest cross training of any type is positive for your run training, but of all the cross training you do, swimming is probably one of the best. My swim technique is focused on the fact I do triathlons and I want to minimise leg effort, thus the strain on my legs is minimal. It should be enough to promote increased blood flow through my legs and my increased heart rate should help with that regardless. It’s also zero impact and consequently it’s good for minimising risk of injury or undesirably damage to those muscles I’m wanting to repair. I feel it’s a good compromise that enhances my recovery but is also exercise for building upper body strength and core strength, which are also both key to improving my run form and technique thus my running in general.
Some will firmly feel they want to do a recovery run, that’s a personal view and if that’s working for their training, it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re not sure what you should, experiment, bear in mind the objective, to promote faster healing and building stronger muscles, and see what works for you. Remember, rest days do also allow healing and if you don’t take rest days, depending on your running level, you do risk not giving those muscles time to recover and heal and therefore they won’t get stronger. So always make sure you’re balancing all of these different things and listen to your body.