Updated: Feb 21
Both as an endurance athlete and coach, I have often debated the concept of recovery runs and if there is such a thing, if they actually help with recovery and if so how often they should be done. With some thought, discussions with other coaches about this topic, some research and feeling this concept in my own body as well as seeing the benefits of such runs in athletes it can be confirmed that recovery runs are in fact important.
Going out for a second run of the day may barely sound like recovery and can often be classified as “junk miles” or worse “overtraining”. So what is the difference between junk miles and recovery miles? The best way to navigate this topic is by comprehending this type of workout as well as the benefits it can provide that can help you improve your running, recover faster, and ultimately increase your running fitness.
Recovery runs are best done after moderate to high training stress scores (TSS) like a hard workout, race, or strength training session. This is for the reason that most endurance athletes tend to feel sore muscles after these types of workouts. The aim of a recovery run is to loosen up the body by increasing blood flow and flushing out waste. This is important for our performance, as stiffness and soreness can stop our mobility, diminish our power output, and make workouts uncomfortable and challenging to complete. A recovery run is best seen in those who do more than 80km of running on the road or up to 8 hours of running in a week or for those who do multisports such as adventure racing, triathlon, and duathlons. This helps flush the global muscle movers and begin the recovery process sooner.
Andrew Simmons notes the following about physiological processes that take place when we train at a high intensity. During high-intensity acidity increases inside muscles. In a recovery workout blood vessels open up to enhance blood flow and nutrient absorption. During high-intensity small tears can be observed in the muscle tissue whereas in a recovery run the connective tissue loosens and this helps reduce the stiffness that our bodies feel. Finally, high-intensity training sets the metabolites to cause stiffness whereas in recovery training the muscles are flushed with freshly oxygenated blood.
So what is the difference between recovery runs and easy aerobic runs or are these one and the same thing?
The answer is quite simple actually. There isn't a major difference between the easy aerobic run and a recovery run other than the intention and the time of the workout. Your weekly aerobic run is only focused on Zone 1 or Zone 2 heart rate that meets the definition of a recovery run. Recovery runs are only 20-30 minutes of aerobic running and they are done after a high-intensity training session with the intention of removing waste. Runs longer than 30 minutes start to make metabolic waste and depending on your fitness level, this can take 8-12 hours to recover from. It is now very evident that easy aerobic runs do not qualify as recovery runs!
There are two types of recovery: Active and Passive
Active recovery increases your heart rate and blood pressure which helps the transportation of metabolic waste. An example of this is a recovery run, an easy spin on your bike, or doing Pilates. An example of passive recovery is massage, compression boots, and naps.
Listen to your body and learn to understand when you will get the maximum benefits of these types of recovery. This takes practice and some experience. If you are physically exhausted from the last run, an easy run may have the reverse effect and may increase your recovery time. As an athlete, the most extensive advice you can be given is always to honour what your body needs - it talks to you.
Macchi, R. et al. (2021, March 18). Sex Influence on the Functional Recovery Pattern After a Graded Running Race: Original Analysis to Identify the Recovery Profiles. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8012843/
Romero, S.A. et al. (2017, February 2). The cardiovascular system after exercise. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5407206/
Solomon, S.J. et al. (1982, October). Menstrual cycle and basal metabolic rate in women. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7124662/