As a coach of runners both young and old, online and in person, one of the biggest challenges I tend to encounter are the varying points of view regarding recovery runs. First off a recovery run (which I define as either an easy pace run where you run comfortably but with your foot on still on the gas pedal a bit or regen runs, runs which are purposefully slowed down by 30-60 seconds from a runners normal easy pace to respond to expected subjective feedback on exhaustion), is performed within twenty-four hours of a major effort. If you run a race, you run a recovery run the next day (and a cool down post-race); if you run mile repeats, you do the same thing.
The thing is, a lot of runners hate them—they would rather cross train, begging to get into the pool or on the bike or just take a day off. Some chalk them up as unnecessary volume, and just want to take a day off. They say their legs are tired and rightly so, 12x400 meters will sap the legs a bit. This exhaustion often leads to a decline in motivation, and thus complaints set in. There are coaches out there who focus purely on a long run, a decent paced volume day, and two hard efforts (key workouts) per week, skipping recovery in favor of rest. While that approach might be perfect for an injury prone runner, most research and coaching mantra points to the fact that increased volume leads to increased fitness which subsequently leads to increased results. The proper mix of speed and volume results in the best results, thus one needs to focus on how to get there.
That said, a recovery run is placed on the off days of the four efforts mentioned above. The day after mile repeats or a four mile threshold run, your legs should be fatigued (note I did not say sore). The runs come in a state of fatigue, you are not fresh, your legs are heavy as they have not had enough time to repair the damage caused by a key workout. Further, depending on your recovery routines, there is a good chance that your body might be glycogen depleted and that some byproducts of cellular respiration still linger in your muscles. Your system is not perfectly balanced and you would not want to race in such a state. But you need to teach your body to persevere. Running when conditions are not physiological optimal will help come race day or when it is pouring outside, snowing, or ungodly hot.
Physiologically speaking you will train your body to deal with pain. You will recruit extra muscle fibers, fibers that seek to compensate for the battered and sore portions from your previous day’s efforts. Down the road, these fibers come in handy, for anyone who has ever run a marathon can tell you, late in the race it becomes difficult to hold your stride. Such alterations are based on the fact the primary muscles involved in the stride are taxed and the brain is searching for solutions to maintain some semblance of balance. Enter these recovery fibers, the muscles you have built slogging through 6 slow miles the day after running ten hard with a tempo mixed in. These fibers might be the key to your goal as your body searches for ways to maintain homeostasis. Finally, the runs get the rust out. They shake things up, clearing up any lingering toxicity in your muscles, and thus the bridge into the next key workout, the day that genuinely matters.
How do you make the most of these days?
- Pay attention to your body and work into the runs. You might start at 9:00 pace, but as you loosen up and get moving, you might close at 7:30 pace. If your body is still asking you to hold off, maybe you run steady 9:00's. The point is, pay attention and work to understand the signals and how your body tells you and how it guides you.
- Use grass or trails (click here for more on varied training surfaces). They already work on proprioception, thus the recruitment of muscle fibers is being enhanced as your body copes with altered footing and trail debris. Yet the legs get a day off from the impact of the road or track.