A Fresh Perspective on Recovery Runs
What is the Real Benefit of Recovery Runs?In short, recovery runs do not enhance recovery. Nevertheless, recovery runs are almost universally practiced by top runners. That wouldn't be the case if this type of workout weren't beneficial. So what is the real benefit of recovery runs? The real benefit of recovery runs is that they increase your fitness--perhaps almost as much as longer, faster runs do--by challenging you to run in a pre-fatigued state (i.e. a state of lingering fatigue from previous training.)There is evidence that fitness adaptations occur not so much in proportion to how much time you spend exercising but rather in proportion to how much time you spend exercising beyond the point of initial fatigue in workouts. So-called key workouts (runs that are challenging in their pace or duration) boost fitness by taking your body well beyond the point of initial fatigue.
Creating a Setback to Get AheadAdditional research has shown that when athletes begin a workout with energy-depleted muscle fibers and lingering muscle damage from previous training, the brain alters the muscle recruitment patterns used to produce movement. Essentially, the brain tries to avoid using the worn-out muscle fibers and instead involves fresher muscle fibers that are less worn out precisely because they are less preferred under normal conditions.When your brain is forced out of its normal muscle recruitment patterns in this manner, it finds neuromuscular "shortcuts" that enable you to run more efficiently (using less energy at any given speed) in the future. Pre-fatigued running is sort of like a flash flood that forces you to alter your normal morning commute route. The detour seems a setback at first, but in searching for an alternative way to reach the office, you might find a faster way--or at least a way that's faster under conditions that negatively affect your normal route.
Tips for Effective Use of Recovery Runs
- Whenever you run again within 24 hours of completing a key workout (or any run that has left you severely fatigued or exhausted), the follow-up run should usually be a recovery run.
- Recovery runs are only necessary if you run four times a week or more.
- If you run just three times per week, each run should be a "key workout" followed by a day off.
- If you run four times a week, your first three runs should be key workouts and your fourth run only needs to be a recovery run if it is done the day after a key workout instead of the day after a rest day.
- If you run five times a week, at least one run should be a recovery run.
- If you run six or more times a week, at least two runs should be recovery runs.
- There's seldom a need to insert two easy runs between hard runs, and it's seldom advisable to do two consecutive hard runs within 24 hours.
- Recovery runs are largely unnecessary during base training, when most of your workouts are moderate in both intensity and duration. When you begin doing formal high-intensity workouts and exhaustive long runs, it's time to begin doing recovery runs in roughly a 1:1 ratio with these key workouts.
- There are no absolute rules governing the appropriate duration and pace of recovery runs.
- A recovery run can be as long and fast as you want, provided it does not affect your performance in your next scheduled key workout.
- In most cases, however, recovery runs cannot be particularly long or fast without sabotaging recovery from the previous key workout or sabotaging performance in your next one.
- A little experimentation is needed to find the recovery run formula that works best for each individual runner.
- Don't be too proud to run very slowly in your recovery runs, as Kenya's runners are famous for doing. Even very slow running counts as pre-fatigued running practice that will yield improvements in your running economy, and running very slowly allows you to run longer without sabotaging your next key workout.