What is a Recovery Run? (Benefits and FAQs)

what is a recovery run

If you’ve ever talked to a non-runner about running, they’ve probably said some things like, “Running is so hard!” “I can’t run for more than one minute without needing to stop.” “I don’t know how you do it.” It’s almost as if they assume that runners nearly sprint every run, every day. But, as runners, we know this isn’t true. And I’ve experienced these comments too many times to count.

When I wasn’t injured, I was talking to someone about my running routine. They, being a non-runner but still curious, asked me how far I was going that day. “Around eight miles, but at an easy pace,” I replied. Their mouth opened wide and they said, rolling their eyes, “Easy? I don’t know how eight miles is easy.”

That’s when I realized that many non-runners, or new runners, don’t know about the concept (and the importance) of a recovery run.

So, what is a recovery run? A recovery run is a run of any distance, but typically shorter than your base runs and workouts, ran at a pace of at least one minute per mile slower than your average base run. These runs are based off of how your body feels, and are performed the following day or days after a hard workout or a race. The intention is to flush out the toxins from your tired legs while keeping your heart rate at a level that does not tax your body.

Benefits of a recovery run

If you’ve ever ran a really hard workout or a race and felt dog-tired the following day, you may have also dreaded going out for your scheduled run. Perhaps you have even contemplated taking the entire day off, just to sit around and rest your legs. While resting your legs is ultimately beneficial, it would be more beneficial to go out for a recovery run.

Moving your legs is essential for keeping your muscles loose and in preventing soreness. Have you ever gotten a shot in your arm and been instructed by the doctor to keep your arm moving, in spite of the fact that it hurts to do so? A recovery run is the same concept. All of the damage done to your muscles post-hard workout or race needs to be undone, and sitting around only stiffens your muscles and slows the recovery process down.

In addition, recovery runs initiate the process of muscle repair– going at a slower pace the days after a run increases the blood flow to your muscles, but at pace gentle enough to avoid additional muscle damage. Running at slower paces also promotes fat burn, or the fat adaptation effect, as your body can only burn fat by running at a slower pace.

Faster paces incite your body to burn glycogen from carbohydrates– which doesn’t last very long. That’s part of the reason why you’re tired far sooner in a fast run than in a slow run.

There are mental health benefits to a recovery run as well. Running hard produces cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone– and your body doesn’t know the difference between physical exertion/stress and emotional/mental stress. Too much cortisol, and not only will you feel depleted mentally and emotionally, but running will take a toll as well– your base runs may start to feel like you’re running through mud.

A recovery run, especially when done with a good friend, promotes mental recovery as well as physical recovery.

How long to rest after a run

The resting period after a run entirely depends on the type and duration of your run. If you’ve just performed a hard workout or a race, you may need the following day to go on a recovery run, and then the day after that to go on a base run.

If your race, however, was fairly long, such as a marathon, you will need more time– more like a week or two weeks of very light, easy recovery runs with some days entirely off sprinkled in.

It also depends on your current level of fitness. Many sub-elite and elite runners will run twice a day, nearly every day– meaning that their true resting time is shortened. Because of this, they perform more recovery runs to combat their heavy training load while keeping their muscles pliable and ready for the next run.

But if you’re a new running, or just building up mileage after a tough race, or are coming back from injury, you may need more recovery between hard days.

Another factor to consider is where you are in your training cycle. As you’re building base fitness, you’re building mileage and endurance, which means your body will be more generally fatigued. Since the intensity isn’t too high, you may feel the need to perform less recovery runs.

As your training cycle progress into building intensity, you may feel your body forcing you to run slow on your recovery days– and you should thank your body for signaling its stress to you!

The key is to listen to your body. Take five minutes out of your day to close your eyes and breathe, keeping your focus inward. Do a full body scan, from your toes to the top of your head. How do you feel? What muscles are sore, if at all? How about your lungs, your heart rate, that place in the center of your body where you feel exhaustion– how does that all feel?

Take those feelings into account each day heading into your run. Your body knows best– run hard when you’re feeling good, and take it easy when your body is feeling run-down.

Rest or cross train the day after your long run

Generally, the best day to take a day off or a cross training day would be the day after a long run. In a typical training cycle, the long run signals the end of the cycle, whether it be a one-week cycle, a nine-day cycle, or a two-week cycle. Runners tend to feel pretty tired by the end of each cycle, making the day after a long run a good day to rest.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to take the day off. If you’re the kind of runner that doesn’t take a day off every week, make this a recovery run day. I’ve had training routines call for the day after a long run to be a cross-training/light run/off day,

I’ve had this day land after a mid-week long run (to gear up for a full weekend of hard workouts, long runs, and/or races), and I’ve trained under the notion of taking a day off every other week to every two weeks. Which bring me to my next FAQ, answered.

Is it okay to run every day?

Yes! There are many runners who have run every day for years– even decades. The key to running every day requires three things: consistency, maintenance, and patience. In order to not miss a day, you have to commit to consistency, which isn’t always easy.

In addition, you have to focus on maintenance work, such as consistent stretching, pre-run exercises, strength work, foam rolling, etc. Last but not least, it takes a great amount of patience– you may feel eager on days you need to pull back, or feel frustrated with your lack of progress.

If your goal is to run every day, but you feel an abnormal pain anywhere in your body, try your best to take it easy. Go on a short, one-mile recovery run and monitor the pain. When does the pain start? When does it end? Is it dull and aching, or sharp and radiating? In your muscles, or in your bones? What about pain to the touch?

Sometimes, the pain is something you can easily work out with extra self-care and reduced running. This is, by no means, a suggestion to push through a serious pain. It’s important to learn how to distinguish pain from a real injury from pain due to tightness, soreness, exhaustion, etc.– all of which can be fixed with a step back and extra TLC.

However, if the pain gets worse, or you find your running/walking gait has changed because of the pain, stop immediately. Running every day is not more important than your overall health. Seek professional help from a doctor or a physical therapist and get your body right before returning to running.

How do I run a recovery run?

A recovery run should be done at less than 65% of your heart rate reserve (HRR), which is the difference between your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate.

According to multiple sources (including this one), to calculate your HRR, you need to first subtract your age from 220. This is your maximum heart rate. You then subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate (you can use one of these apps to easily track your resting heart rate– use it in the morning before you get out of bed for at least one week to determine your average resting heart rate) to get your HRR.

To calculate your ideal recovery run heart rate, you multiply your maximum heart rate by .65 (65% in this scenario) and add that number to your resting heart rate.

For example, I’m 23 years old. This means my maximum heart rate is 197. My resting heart rate is usually at 50, lower when I’m in intense training. My HRR would then be 147. My goal heart rate for recovery runs would then be (147x.65) + 50 = 145.55. Obviously, I don’t have to maintain that exact heart rate throughout the duration of my recovery run. As long as it’s not too far off, I’m doing okay.

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, or you don’t have the desire to use one, go by the conversation test. If you struggle holding a conversation, or can’t finish an average sentence without needing a break to breathe, you’re going too fast.

Cross-training on a recovery day

On a recovery day, like I discussed earlier, it’s important to listen to your body. Sometimes you body feels too tired to take on the impact of running, and on these days, cross-training would be the way to go. There isn’t any rule that says you must run on a recovery day, or vice versa, but keep in mind that in order to get better as a runner, you have to run.

“Running on your recovery day can be more beneficial, as long as you’re not injured or overexerting yourself.”

If you are cross-training on your recovery day, and you’re dreading hopping on the elliptical or stationary bike (me!), turn it into a little fartlek to make the time go by. Warm up for ten minutes and then do twenty minutes of 2 minutes with the resistance up, two minutes rest. This can be done on any stationary cross-training machine, or even swimming in the pool.

On the rare days where I don’t run on my recovery day, I’ll do a yoga session either in studio or with my favorite yoga app – Gaiam.com. It’s a great way to keep your muscles loose and moving gently, all while bringing your attention inward, promoting mindfulness– a must for long distance runners!

Race specific recovery run tips…

Half-marathon

Regardless of how you feel post-race, there is still significant muscle damage for days after the race. Recovery will be your top priority for the next few days, even up to a week post-race. Here’s how to best promote recovery immediately and in the following days after your race.

  • After your race: Try to get some calories within an hour of finishing your race– a recovery drink, a bagel with peanut butter, some fruit, etc. Jog very lightly for around 10 minutes, depending on how you feel. See if you can get a light massage post-race– many large half-marathons have massage therapists available and free for use.
  • The following day: Cross-train or jog for twenty to thirty minutes. Stretch and foam roll well afterward. Take a warm epsom salt bath. If you have compression socks, wear those a few hours a day.
  • Two to three days post-race: perform one base run with a few light strides after your run. Keep foam rolling and stretching well after each run. If your legs still feel sore, get a professional massage and/or elevate your legs for at least ten minutes a day.
  • One week post-race: You should be almost back into the swing of regular training, having done at least one hard workout, with the rest of your runs either base runs and recovery runs with some strides. Try to do these strides barefoot on the grass if you can. You should feel close to normal two weeks post-race.

Marathon

It goes without saying that you will be fairly tired after a marathon. The recovery period for the marathon is longer than with a half-marathon, so you will spend more time gently cross-training post-race before dipping back into your regular training routine. And although you should always be careful to push it too soon after your hard effort, it’s always better to be safe than sorry when recovering from a marathon.

  • After your race: Get some food and fluids in your body, preferably all with a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. A protein drink would also be beneficial. Remember to consistently drink an electrolyte drink for the rest of the day after your race to replenish all of the fluids lost during your race. Make sure to walk around sufficiently not long after you cross the finish line, perhaps even lightly jog for a few minutes. Stretch, get a light massage, and put on warm clothes.
  • The following day: Walk around, do some light yoga, get some foam rolling in. Avoid heavy cross-training, and avoid running.
  • Two or three days post-race: Incorporate some light cross-training, such as the elliptical, swimming, or biking. Get a professional massage, and wear compression socks when you can.
  • One week post-race: try some light jogging for 20-30 minutes to see how your body feels. If it feels great, do a few light, barefoot strides on the grass.
  • Two weeks post-race: You should have a mix of base runs and recovery runs in your routine at this point, with a few strides here and there. Remember to continue stretching, foam rolling, elevating your legs, etc.
  • Three weeks post-race: You should almost be back to your normal training routine, having tried one light workout three weeks after your race. If your body still doesn’t feel recovered, take your training back a notch and get your blood tested for any deficiencies, like iron.

10K and 5K

Even though a 10K is far shorter than a half-marathon and a marathon, and a 5K is shorter still, you still need adequate recovery. Depending on the terrain and elevation changes of your race, you may either feel like you just ran a very hard workout, or you may feel worse. Regardless, you should be back to normal training within a few days, perhaps even one day, depending on your fitness levels.

  • After the race: Drink a recovery drink within 30 minutes to an hour after your race. Make sure to start your cool-down within this time frame as well, jogging for at least 10-20 minutes in warmer clothes. I’ve even had coaches instruct me to do 4-6 barefoot strides on the grass to prevent soreness, especially in your calves. Get some adequate stretching in as well.
  • The following day: Asses how you feel. Typically, you will perform a recovery run for at least 30 minutes and get adequate stretching, foam rolling, and perhaps a professional massage on this day. Sometimes, you can jump right back into your regular training routine. Be okay with making adjustments.
  • Two or three days post-race: You still may experience soreness, but by day three, you should be back to your regular training routine. You may adjust your workouts to be lighter, or add in more recovery runs, and that’t okay!

Let us know how you like to recover, or if you have any more tips on recovery!

 

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