Recently I was asked about recovery runs - how fast and how far should they be? While I use the term recovery runs both in this blog and in my website they should really be called adaptation runs. This is because you recover from a sickness or injury, not an athletic training workout. If we think of it as an adaptation session, we can then think about it as a run where we are allowing our body to adapt and improve.
If you have read the information on the website and in the previous blogs you would realise that you should not repeat the exact same training session week after week. This is because the body adapts and gets used to particular workouts. To further improve you need to change the stimulus and this depends on what is needed - increased endurance, ability to run at a certain pace or running at higher speeds. Increasing the stimulus whether it be volume or pace cannot happen each day. On the days between you need to give your body time to adapt. This is where the recovery runs come in.
No matter what the session, the days that follow can mean lower glycogen levels and different muscle tension. This means on the next run you will start with a different fuel ratio, different muscle fibres have to be activated and different neural pathways have to be used to help you run. Muscles will also have micro tears and at the same time as you are running your body will be trying to repair and process that damage. Therefore, how fast and how far should these runs be? This is a very hard question to answer as it is individual to everyone, their personal level of fitness and the distance that they run. A good rule is to run such sessions at 75% effort. That means adding 25% to your fastest pace time. Let’s assume you are a 40-minute, 10km runner. A recovery run after a particularly hard session could therefore be a run at 5 minutes per km. For a 40-minute 10km runner, adding 25% is easy. Add 1 minute and run at 5 minutes per km. The distance covered in the run is individual but could range from 40 – 60 minutes. Around 60% of your runs should be recovery/adaptation runs.
This 75% rule for recovery is a good rule and you will find that even the 2hr 3m marathon runners are following it. To run a marathon in that time requires paces around 2m55s per km. If you follow some of these runners, their websites and blogs, you will note that a lot of their recovery runs are run at 3m40s pace. That, for them, is a 75% effort. They feel comfortable running that fast. To run slower means more effort as their feet remain longer and experience more impact from the ground. Hard workouts are also tough from a mental point of view. Thinking about the session and staying on pace during the workout comes at a price. Therefore recovery runs are not only good for physiological adaptation but also good to help you relax mentally.
During any recovery run your mind will zone in and out. You do not need to focus for the whole run. There will be times when your body is on autopilot, letting all the wisdom from your years of training take over. While I state 75% effort, just use this figure as a guide. A little less than that is still fine. As you get fitter your recovery runs will naturally feel easier, even though you are running faster.