Recovery runs are the easiest runs you’ll do all week. They are short runs done at a VERY easy effort. Leave the running watch at home and slow down to smell the roses!
Whilst recovery runs are the easiest runs on your program, it doesn’t make them any less important than any of the other types of runs you’re doing – long runs, tempo runs and interval training. Skipping them is not an option for anyone serious about getting faster. Recovery runs allow you to run more, without increasing your risk of injury. And up to a point, the more you run, the faster you’ll be in your goal race.
Recovery Runs Can Make You a Faster Runner
To understand the importance of the recovery run, we need to understand that there are two somewhat competing elements of the training equation that make us faster: training intensity or “stress”, and training volume.
Your body will be under stress in sessions that test your current fitness levels – long runs which push you further than the last long run, and higher intensity runs such as interval sessions, hills sessions and tempo runs. A session that leaves you pretty tired is a session that’s stressed your body. And that’s a good thing. When you place a training stress on your body, and you’re regularly stressing it, pushing the limits of your fitness, your body adapts by getting stronger, ready for the next bout. With consistent well-planned training, you’ll be better able to resist the causes of fatigue in your next session, and ultimately your goal race. The gains made from session to session may be so small that you don’t notice them, but over time, they add up.
Increasing your training volume-the sheer amount of running you do- will make you faster, even if you never do any hard workouts such as speed sessions or long runs. The reason is that running efficiency increases with training volume.
Running is a motor skill. And like any other motor skill, to do it, your brain and muscles need to communicate. Training helps you do develop efficient communication between your brain and your muscles. The more efficient the communication, the faster you can run for a lower energy expenditure. The amount of energy expended for a given speed, is called running efficiency, or running economy. Practicing running improves the communication between the brain and the muscles. You develop your skill as a runner through repetition. Like any other motor skill, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, the more you do it, the better you will be at it.
From the point of view of getting faster, a high volume of training, as well as training that places a lot of stress on your body, are equally important. But… you can’t run like a bat out of hell every time you run and keep piling on the volume at the same time, so how do you increase your running volume (and therefore your running economy) without upping the risk of injury?
Enter the Recovery Run
Throwing recovery runs into your training program allows you to increase your total volume. They are very easy. You should not need more recovery after a recovery run. They allow you to get the most out of your other workouts – speed sessions, long runs, tempo runs – whilst also increasing the amount of time you are running for. That is, the amount of time you are practicing running, and therefore getting better at it.
Fitness adaptations occur relative to how much time you spend exercising past the point of initial fatigue. (So, when the going starts to get a bit tough, is when the real fitness adaptations start to occur). Your harder runs that challenge you either by their pace or duration take you well beyond that point of initial fatigue. You do spend some time at the beginning of the session to get to that point though.
Recovery runs, strategically placed in your program, are performed entirely in a fatigued state – they therefore boost your fitness despite being shorter or “easier” than your harder key workouts. Because you’re mostly doing them in an already fatigued state, recovery runs will often not feel easy.
In any kind of workout, once you reach a fatigued state, the brain will alter the pattern of muscle recruitment. It tries to avoid using the tired muscle fibres and instead recruits fresher muscles that are not so tired, simply since they are not the preferred muscle fibres used to perform that movement
Essentially the brain is forced out of its “comfort zone” of normal muscle recruitment. If you want to keep running at the same pace, the brain needs to circumvent the tired muscles to enable you to recruit new fresh muscles. By placing your body under stress, either in a hard workout or in a recovery run when you are already fatigued before you start, you force your brain to find more efficient ways to recruit muscles. You’ll be running more efficiently.
Tips for When to Use Recovery Runs
Generally, if you run within 24 hours of a hard workout, the second run should be a recovery run.
If you’re running 3 times a week, generally you don’t need to include recovery runs. Each workout can be a harder workout, with a rest day in between. Note this does not apply to beginners, people coming back from injury, or coming back from a break in training.
Experienced runners won’t need to include recovery runs in the base phase of their training when they are not doing super exhaustive long runs, or high intensity workouts. When you do get to that stage, you do want to include recovery runs in your program-the ratio can be as high as 1 recovery run for each hard workout you do – this will depend on how frequently you run – sometimes you’ll have a rest day after a hard workout, rather than a recovery run.
For the most part, recovery runs won’t be fast or long. The actual length will depend on how much mileage you’re already doing. Recovery runs should be easy enough and short enough not to leave you feeling tired for your next hard work out.
You won’t always feel bad during a recovery run (good to know). Even if you feel like you’re running very easy, don’t push the pace. Keep it at conversation pace. If you can’t belt out the first verse of the national anthem, then you’re running too fast.
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