What Is A Recovery Run?

Recovery runs used to be a bit of a “secret weapon” that only the elite runners worldwide practiced consistently.

Today, though, pretty much every serious running coach recommends recovery runs to rest, recover, and restart your body. This allows your body to get back into gear after pushing yourself faster than you would have been able to otherwise.

What is a recovery run, exactly?

A recovery run is a slower, shorter duration run completed within 24 hours of competition or hard training. The overwhelming majority of top-flight runners today run recovery sessions to boost their performance significantly.

At the same time, there are a lot of athletes that aren’t necessarily on board with this type of training.

By the time you’re done with this inside information below you’ll understand:

  • Exactly what recovery runs are
  • How they help your body recover faster
  • What kind of terrain you should be running your recovery sessions on
  • How fast your recovery running sessions should be

Do Recovery Runs Really Help the Body Recover Faster?

The science surrounding recovery runs isn’t (yet) settled. There’s a mountain of anecdotal evidence out there that suggests recovery runs help you perform better compared to going all out and then going stationary for a couple of days.

Interestingly, though, a number of studies show that recovery runs do not necessarily speed up the actual recovery process – at least from a biomechanical standpoint, anyway.

Some research shows that recovery runs push lactic acid from your body fast, helping to improve the healing process. However, more studies are necessary to confirm whether or not this is true.

What the research does show is that recovery runs actually work to “warm-up” your muscles following a grueling session. This slow-paced run triggers a biochemical cascade of hormone releases (including endorphins) that make you feel better. Your body is able to oxygenate more efficiently after you put it through a rigorous pace/workout.

Your circulation improves, your blood flow increases, and you’re able to get some real relief for your aching muscles with recovery runs.

Benefits of Recovery Runs

There are quite a few benefits of recovery runs which include (but definitely aren’t limited to):

  • Sped up recovery timeline by expelling excessive lactic acid buildup in your muscles
  • Significantly improved resistance to fatigue by training your body in a post exhaustion state
  • Boosted blood flow levels that help to oxygenate your body and muscles starving for fuel
  • The ability to prevent soreness from building up or “locking up” your hamstrings and your calves after a particularly tough run the day before
  • The chance to add a lot of volume to your training schedule, helping you to improve overall aerobic abilities while improving your run times and overall distance
  • Real improvements to your running form, especially when you focus on your biomechanics at the exclusion of everything else

What Terrain Should I Run My Recovery Runs On?

While there are a lot of ways to challenge your body, the last thing that should be doing on a recovery day is making it hard on yourself.

The last thing you want to do on your recovery day is run on challenging, uneven, or steep terrain.

The ideal terrain would be a nice flat section of ground (like a track, for example). Avoid the hills, avoid the trails, and avoid pushing your body any harder than absolutely necessary. You are not looking to fatigue your body further. You’re looking to reset and recover.  Relax your shoulders and simply enjoy the run.

If you can’t find a cushioned track to do your recovery runs on it’s not a bad idea to find a stretch of grass, flat trails, or even gravel roads.

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Can I Cross-Train on My Recovery Run Dates?

A lot of runners looking to lower the impact on running outside choose to jump on an elliptical machine to cross-train when recovery day arrives.

Elliptical machines have been engineered and designed from the ground up to closely mimic the motion of the human body running without putting any extra stress on your knees, feet, ankles, legs, or core.

You’ll also be able to activate a little bit more of your upper body because of the pendulum motion of elliptical training during your recovery runs. If you have access to a quality elliptical machine there’s no reason you can’t work it into your recovery sessions.

Just remember, the main priority for recovery runs is to recover. You’re here to rest and recover – not to push yourself any harder than necessary when tackling a cross-training session.

Can I Strength Train on My Recovery Run Dates?

Generally speaking, it’s a pretty bad idea to try to combine your recovery run days with strength training.

As we just mentioned a moment ago, the last thing you want to do is stress you’re already super fatigued body out any further.

The whole point of recovery sessions is to reboot your system, warm up your muscles, and to give you a rush of oxygenated blood and endorphins. The rush of endorphins into your body helps you feel better by minimizing pain.

Strength training isn’t about recovering, it’s about building muscles through pushing yourself.

Leave your strength training workouts for another day.

Do you need a strength training regime for runners? Check out this detailed post about essential strength training for runners.

On recovery days, focus on a recovery above all else.

How Fast Should My Recovery Be?

Honestly, it’s almost impossible to run too slowly when you are on a recovery run.

Sure, you probably won’t see fantastic results if you’re just walking around at a brisk pace. But even a gentle jog pace is usually enough to shake the cobwebs loose, to get the blood flowing, and to get your body into recovery mode.

Related: 10 Ways To Improve Your Walking Speed

What pace should I run my recovery runs at?

A great way to find the perfect pace for your recovery run is to simply try and hold a conversation – a normal conversation – while you are going through the motions.

This is best if you have a partner to do your recovery run with, but if you don’t mind holding a conversation with yourself (out loud) while cruising around at a pretty slow pace that’s perfectly okay, too!

If you have any trouble whatsoever holding a conversation for even a few minutes then you’re moving too quickly. Shift down a gear and really focus on your breathing, your biomechanics, and getting the blood flow going again.

What heart rate zone should be used for my recovery runs?

If you are a runner that loves to train with a pocketful of technology (and these days who isn’t) the odds are pretty good you have a heart rate monitor handy.

This is going to be huge for getting your recovery run pace down perfectly.

The general idea is to run at about 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate during your recovery sessions. This is usually around 60 seconds to 90 seconds slower than your average training pace (and significantly slower than hard-core training paces).

Even that might be too fast sometimes, though. Don’t be shy about slowing things down even more than that to avoid overextending your body and actually prolonging your recovery along the way.

What perceived exertion Level should be used for my recovery runs?

Start off slow and then recognize that you’re probably still going too fast (especially if you have been training for a while and are just coming out of competition).

Slow things down and then slow things down even just a bit more. Again, you don’t want to slow things down to a total walk.

The chart below shows typical rates of perceived exertion that you can print and create for yourself. For a recovery run, you want to run at an RPE between 2 and 4.

RPEDifficultyTalk TestPace
10All-out - Max Effort (Sprints/Strides)Can't talk, out of breath
9Extremely hard (Speedwork)one or two words at a time
7-8Medium to Hard Effort (Interval/Speedwork)Can speak in small sentences
4-6Moderate Effort (Endurance)can have a conversation
2-3Light Effort (walking)No problem talking
1No Effort (Sitting/Standing)No problem talking

Recovery Run = Slow Down

If you couldn’t tell by now, the whole idea behind a recovery run is to slow yourself down like you are running in cement or quicksand without the same kind of exertion.

You need to physically remind yourself at regular intervals that your goal is to not push yourself. You’re here to complete a mission which is to spend the day recovering. The last thing you need to do is set yourself back by trying to run fast. Don’t spend more than 30 minutes on your recovery runs (20 minutes is ideal).

Slow things down (SLOW things down) and you’ll be good to go.

Recovery Runs for Race Specific Events

It’s not a bad idea to preplan your recovery runs as part of your post-competition process. Understanding exactly what you’re going to do the day after your competition will help you start your recovery on the right foot.

Recovery Runs for 5Ks

It’s not a bad idea to rest your body for 24 hours after you compete in a 5K, especially if you really pushed yourself hard.

A day or so later you’ll want to shake the cobwebs off with a 20-minute session that concludes with a bit of stretching, waking everything up, getting rid of lactic acid, and priming your system to get after it again.

Recovery Runs for 10Ks

Recovery runs for 10K races are almost identical to those for 5K races. Give yourself a full day off and then stretch things out for 20 or 30 minutes with a gentle run at about 60% of your regular training pace. This will go a long way towards rebooting your system.

Recovery Runs for Half Marathons

There isn’t a runner on the planet that completes a half marathon without doing at least a little bit of damage to their body.

Because of this, you want to give yourself two or three days of complete rest before you jump into any recovery run sessions. Go over that 20 to 30 minute run at 60% we mentioned earlier after you had plenty of time to rest and you should be good to go.

Days 1-4 consider taking walks to help slightly activate your body and cause blood flow to renew in your lower extremities.

For information on half marathon recoveries checkout:

How to recover after a half marathon?

Recovery Runs for Full Marathons

Full marathons are even more destructive than half-marathons. Get up and walk around for a couple of minutes multiple times a day after a marathon. Do a little bit of light stretching, and then rest your body for four to seven days minimum.

After that, a 20-minute recovery run followed by a little bit of crosstraining should reignite your spark and aid you in the recovery process.

At the end of the day, it’s all about listening to your body and not pushing too hard or too fast.

How Soon Can I Run After a Marathon?

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to give yourself up to 14 days off (1/2 day for every mile) after a marathon (even after half of a marathon) to sort of reset, recover, and repair any of the damage you’ve done during these long haul races.

Marathons are incredibly grueling, not only to your muscles but to every other part of your body as well.

Your central nervous system gets slammed, major organs get stressed, and even your new system takes a beating when you push your body to these kinds of extremes. You’ll need at least a couple of days to chill out before you even think about tackling a recovery run.

How Soon Can I Run After a Half Marathon?

Half marathons are destructive as well but (obviously) you’ll recover faster from this kind of long-distance running than you would with a full-blown 26.2-mile excursion.

Some people only need two to four days of rest before they can do a recovery run after completing this kind of race. Other folks need another 24 to 48 hours to reset completely. Some newer runners might want to take 7 days off (1/2 day for every mile) before attempting a run.

Take your time, but make sure that you aren’t going completely stationary following any kind of marathon.

Get up, walk around, and stretch your body to keep yourself limber and to push out a bit of that extra lactic acid before you finish things off with a recovery run later down the line.

If I’m in Pain Should I Still Perform a Recovery Run?

There’s a world of difference between the pain you feel during training, the pain you feel pushing lactic acid and soreness out of your bodies during a recovery run, and the pain caused by a legitimate injury.

The chances are pretty good that if you pushed your body hard and ran with your whole heart that you are going to be in at least a little bit of pain the next day following competition or intense training.

That pain is 100% normal. You can push through that pain (aches, really) and get a lot of benefit out a recovery run even if your body initially tells you that you need to park it on the couch a little longer.

If you’re feeling sharp pains that are far more intense you can suspect that it might be pain caused by an injury.  You’ll need to take an extra 1 to 2 weeks off and possibly go seek out a medically licensed professional if the pain doesn’t subside after a few weeks off.

The last thing you want to do is push yourself through an injury, even if you feel it’s pretty mild.

You’ll end up setting yourself back even further, compromising your progress completely. This could potentially sideline yourself for weeks if not months when just a couple of days of total rest would have let your body resolve things all on its own. The last thing you want is a sustained life-long injury (How to help prevent running injuries).

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Coach Scott's Credentials:
  • Published Author
  • RRCA Certified Running Coach (Level 2)
  • RRCA Certified Youth Running Coach
  • NASM CPT (Certified Personal Trainer).
  • NASM CNC (Certified Nutrition Coach)
  • NASM WLS (Weight Loss Specialist)
  • ACE SFC (Stretching and Flexibility Coach)
  • ACE GFI (Group Fitness Instructor)
He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 22nd half marathon race. 

 To sign up for a FREE half marathon training schedule, log sheet, and pace predictor CLICK HERE.

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