What is a Recovery Run? And Should I Be Doing It?

What is a Recovery Run? And Should I Be Doing It?

clock-circular-outlinePosted 28 Feb 2023

Whether you were roaming for a new fitness challenge, you signed up to a 10k for charity, or you simply wanted to get in shape and joined a running club… you’re now into your running.

And you’ve ended up here, seeking ways to optimise your recvoery.

You’ve come a long way, literally. Your running journey might have stepped up, and maybe now you’re running multiple times per week. Perhaps, you’re even considering a half-marathon!?

Either way, I can imagine you’re clocking up the miles frequently. I can also imagine you might feel sore or fatigued after high-intensity runs, but you want to keep the miles up – especially if you feel the mental benefits that many of us feel from running.

So, how do you recover better from your runs without having to tone down the miles? A recovery run.

If this is the first time you have heard of a recovery run, you’re probably now asking what is a recovery run?

Maybe you’ve already heard of a recovery run, but you’re looking for answers to questions such as;

Well, hang around and stay put for a change, this 5-minute read will give you the answers you’re looking for.

What Is A Recovery Run?

So, what is a recovery run? A recovery run is a form of active recovery, as a low-intensity run. It’s usually done within the 24-hour period following intense training and is intended to help promote recovery so that you can perform more intense training in the following days.

Recovery runs are a clever way to get in extra running without causing any further fatigue and, as the name suggests, facilitate recovery rather than hinder it. So, let’s jump into the details you will need to know to find if you should be doing recovery runs.

What Are The Benefits Of A Recovery Run?

Following on from our brief definition, recovery runs actually have many benefits, if they’re done correctly. Here’s some:

  • Promote recovery (6)

  • Improve running economy (4)

  • Manage your overall training load whilst getting extra miles in

  • Improve your pacing whilst focusing on technique and rhythm

  • Plus, the best way to become better at running is… to run

Recovery runs may promote recovery by increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to the muscles used during running, potentially delivering nutrients and removing metabolites from the muscles.

Running economy is defined as the steady consumption of oxygen for running at a given submaximal speed (1). If you do this frequently enough, your utilisation of energy during running from carbohydrate and fat will become more efficient. In return, this can improve your running economy.

Running can also improve the storage and utilisation of elastic energy in the Achilles tendon (2), making every step a little bit bouncier. This means that each step you take when running requires less effort – this can also contribute to improving your running economy.

Recovery runs help with managing overall training load and organising runs by their intensity and duration (6). High intensity runs are going to be more taxing on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system. Recovery runs can help keep the miles high whilst reducing the number of high-intensity miles you run.

Managing your running distance and intensity can help reduce the likelihood of injuries such as ‘runners knee’ or shin splints. Part of managing training load is organising runs so the overall miles you run reduce nearer to a race day or event.

If you’re a gym-goer who gravitates more towards a chest pump versus the treadmill (me included), you know you should probably start getting some cardio in. A recovery run can be a great way to do this because:

  • It may help with recovery between gym-based workouts

  • The low intensity means it’s not mental warfare for us cardio dodgers

  • This means a high chance of continuing to do cardio consistently

  • It’s a weight bearing activity

When Should You Do A Recovery Run?

Now that we understand what a recovery run is, and the benefits are – it's now time to answer the question, when should you do a recovery run?

Generally, the optimal window for recovery runs is ‘within 24-hours’ following your intense run.

However, let’s say 26 year old, Dash (no pun intended), is preparing for a half-marathon. Dash currently runs three times per week. He runs in the morning at 7am before starting his 9-5 job, and wants to start adding in some recovery runs to his training.

Logistically, It’s doubtful that Dash could do a recovery run on his lunch break, and it's also unlikely that Dash would feel up to a recovery run on his lunch break at 12pm, just four hours after his morning run.

Therefore, it may be best leaving it until 7pm, or the following day at 7am.

Essentially, although the general consensus is that a recovery run should be completed within 24-hours of training, it’s important to be mindful that you’re in no rush to complete a recovery run and finding appropriate times within your training schedule that allows you to fit in recovery runs is key.

How Long Should A Recovery Run Be?

So, how long should a recovery run be? Well, it depends. I’ll list some things to consider:

  • How do you feel on the day?

  • What are your fitness levels like?

  • What are your run distance or weekly miles goals?

The general consensus appears to be a recovery run distance of 2 to 4 miles in 20 to 50-minutes, depending on the considerations above.

How To Do A Recovery Run?

The final question… How to do a recovery run? Approaching your recovery run the right way could be the difference between improving recovery or prolonging it... Here are some key tips to consider, that I will expand on below:

  • Flat surface

  • Soft terrain or well cushioned shoes

  • Light intensity - Zone 2 (60-70% of max heart rate)

  • Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Equivalent of 3-4 (7)

  • Heart rate tracking (if possible)

  • The Talk Test (3)

And of course, some comfortable running clothes.

A light surface helps you control the intensity, whilst a soft terrain or well cushioned shoes helps to reduce joint impact. The intensity is based on Polar’s Heart Rate Zones. A recovery run should fall into Zone 2. If you’re wondering what a recovery run heart rate should be, Polar suggests it correlates to 60-70% of maximum heart rate. So, if you have a smart watch or heart rate monitor, happy days! If not, you can use Borg’s RPE Scale, as shown below.

(Figure 1 - RPE Scale)

An RPE of 3-4 will also likely correlate to a light intensity, zone 2 recovery run. So, if you can’t measure your heart rate, you can measure your RPE. However, there’s also a simple test you can lean on called the ‘Talk Test’. This allows you to see how hard a recovery run is on your cardiovascular system. If you’re struggling to talk during the recovery (say anything you want), it may be too intense.

Final Thoughts

So, now if one of your running buddies asked you “what is a recovery run?’ you could tell them, along with sharing the benefits of doing a recovery run. If they wanted to know “how long a recovery run should be?” or “when should you do a recovery run?”, you could also tell them. You’ve learned some stuff! Although, the best way to learn is sometimes by doing.

Now it’s time to learn how to do a recovery run by putting these tips in practice. This will help you figure out your ideal recovery run duration, distance and intensity to optimise your recovery. Who knows? Maybe you will receive the nickname Dash sometime in the near future!

. . .
Written By: Andrew Hyde

Andy has a BSc (Hons) in Exercise Science and an MSc in Strength & Conditioning. He has worked with Leeds United, Science for Sport, the NHS and more. Andy works privately with elite football players and gym goers who want to improve their performance, fitness, and body composition.

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  1. Barnes, K.R. and Kilding, A.E., 2015. Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors. Sports medicine-open, 1 (1), pp.1-15.

  2. Cavagna, G.A. and Kaneko, M., 1977. Mechanical work and efficiency in level walking and running. The Journal of physiology, 268 (2), pp.467-481.

  3. Foster, C., Barroso, R., Bok, D., Boullosa, D., Casado, A., Cortis, C., de Koning, J.J., Fusco, A. and Haugen, T., 2022. Simple Approach to Defining Training Intensity in Endurance Runners. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1 (aop), pp.1-4.

  4. Jones, A.M., 2006. The physiology of the world record holder for the women's marathon. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 1 (2), pp.101-116.

  5. Kenneally, M., Casado, A. and Santos-Concejero, J., 2018. The effect of periodization and training intensity distribution on middle-and long-distance running performance: a systematic review. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 13 (9), pp.1114-1121.

  6. Tjelta, L.I., 2016. The training of international level distance runners. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 11 (1), pp.122-134.

  7. Williams, N., 2017. The Borg rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. Occupational medicine, 67 (5), pp.404-405.

Andrew HydeBy Andrew Hyde

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