The recovery run is much debated. It is commonly heard that a complete rest day will do you better than a few easy miles. And that might be true for an extremely challenging race effort or while training for short distances. Just so we are on the same page, I define a recovery run as a relatively short run (3 – 6 miles) at a very comfortable pace – for example a minute slower than a long run and about 2 minutes slower than marathon pace.
The truth be told, a recovery run does little for recovery. Sure, it can ease the stiffness from the legs but it does not clear away toxins and other bad stuff from your extremities. Your body does a good job of this on its own within several hours of the intensive session.
So why do I like recovery runs? For triathlon and marathon training these types of runs help develop running fitness, plain and simple. But why? The day after a challenging workout your legs are in a fatigued state. In a tempo run it is not the first mile that is the most valuable but the last couple. The same can be said for the long run. You know when the session gets challenging and the legs are heavy. That is when you are making adaptations to run better, faster, farther. The recovery run can extend this beneficial window without all of the initial workout.
So how do you do a recovery run? You start out easy and stay easy for a relatively short distance. You give the run at least a mile for your legs to wake up – your legs will invariably feel fatigued and sluggish following a hard training session. If after that mile or two you are still struggling then shut the run down. Take it easy. Call it day. However, I would say that 9 times out of 10 if your give the session a fair shake you will find that the legs can and do respond. While I don’t get that huge satisfaction of a perfectly executed tempo run the recovery run is one of my favorite sessions. This is a great run to leave the watch at home and take the time to chat with friends and stop and smell the roses.
Disclaimer: A recovery run is great if the legs are tired and heavy. It is okay if the muscles are a little sore to the touch. However, if after a particularly challenging session the feet, ankles, knees, etc. hurt then I would skip the session entirely. The purpose of the run is not to exacerbate recovery but to build running fitness.