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What is the purpose of recovery runs?

It may feel like relatively short, slow runs wouldn't have much impact on your performance, but these runs play a key role in your training

Recovery runs are perhaps the most misunderstood part of a runner’s training program. These relatively short, very easy-paced runs often get tossed aside as “junk miles,” but they are anything but. They may not be as exciting as an interval workout or as tiring as a long run, but these sessions play a key role in your training program and will make you a fitter, faster runner.

Recovery runs: not really for recovery

The term “recovery run” is a bit of a misnomer. Many runners and coaches talk about how these easy sessions increase blood flow to help clear lactic acid and other waste products from your legs that built up during your last workout, but this isn’t really true.

We know now that even after the hardest of workouts, it generally takes no more than an hour for your body’s lactic acid levels to return to normal. We also know that lactic acid isn’t really to blame for muscle fatigue, and that doing light activity won’t really help repair your muscles. In other words, recovery runs don’t actually do much to promote recovery.

5 reasons recovery runs are still important

So if recovery runs don’t really improve recovery, what’s the point? There are a number of reasons these shorter, easy sessions should have a place in your training plan, both from a performance and health perspective.

They improve your fitness

It may sound counterintuitive, but recovery runs improve your fitness almost as much as your interval workouts, tempos and long runs do. How? By forcing you to run when your muscles are already tired.

Your biggest training adaptations happen when you’ve surpassed the point of initial fatigue — when you’re challenging your body to go beyond what it’s comfortable with. Ideally, you should do your recovery runs within 24 hours of your last hard workout or long run, when you haven’t yet fully recovered, so that you start your run in an already-fatigued state. This will allow you to force a greater amount of adaptation, without overworking your body, since you’re running at a very easy pace.

Recovery runs are also an opportunity to teach your body how to run in a fatigued state, which is crucial when you’re entering the final few kilometres of your goal race. The more you practice doing this, the more efficient your body will become at using energy in the future.

They improve your form

OK, so recovery runs themselves don’t improve your form, but their short and easy nature makes them the perfect time to practice good running form, since you don’t have to focus on other things like trying to hit specific paces. You don’t have to think about your form the entire time you’re running, but spending one minute every kilometre focusing on different aspects of your form, like your stride, your breathing or your arm carriage, can help you run more efficiently in your workouts later on.

If you truly want to take advantage of this aspect of a recovery run, make an appointment with a running-specific physiotherapist or other sports medicine practitioner to have a gait analysis done, so you know which parts of your form you should focus on the most, and how to do so safely and effectively.

They increase your weekly mileage

It’s important for runners to remember that it’s your overall training plan, not just specific workouts, that ultimately lead to improved performance. When you’re training for a longer event like a half-marathon or marathon, running enough weekly mileage is one of the most important factors for success. A recovery run is an opportunity to add to your weekly mileage without putting too much extra stress on your body, since the volume and intensity are low.

They improve your body’s ability to use fat

You have a nearly endless supply of energy available from fat, but in order to break down fat for fuel, you need oxygen. When you’re doing a recovery run at a pace that allows you to breathe easily (and get enough oxygen), your body is able to use fat as an energy source. Over time, your body will gradually become more efficient at using fat for fuel, which will be hugely beneficial during long races like half-marathons and marathons. (This is referred to as fat adaptation.)

They improve your mental health

It’s no secret that running can help improve your mental health, but not all runs are created equal. Easy runs that don’t leave you exhausted at the end are arguably the most enjoyable and tend to have the greatest positive impacts in terms of stress relief and providing that sought-after “runner’s high.”

Recovery run mistakes

There’s no doubt recovery runs provide a lot of benefits, but many runners miss out on them because they don’t do these runs properly. Avoid making these mistakes if you want to maximize the positive effects of recovery runs:

Running too fast. You should be running slow enough that you can maintain a conversation, and shouldn’t be tired at the end of the run.

Running too far. The length of your recovery runs will be relative depending on the rest of your training, but again, they shouldn’t be so long that they induce fatigue.

Watch for hills. A very hilly route can turn an easy run into a challenging run if you’re not careful. If there are hills on your route, make sure you manage your effort on the ascent to avoid turning your run into a hill workout in disguise. (Do not try to maintain a specific pace while running up hills during recovery runs.)

Take a break. If you’re feeling particularly beat up after a hard workout, consider swapping your easy run for a cross-training session. This way, you can still get the aerobic benefits while reducing the stress on your body, which will lower your risk for injuries.