The Art of the Recovery Run

Ohh the recovery run… it hurts, it sucks and it might make you consider actually running into traffic from time to time. So much so that it’s the run in training it’s the run that I’m most likely to skip. Are there things you can do to make them suck less? Yes. Will they ever cease to suck completely? Probably not. The unfortunate thing is that they are pretty darn important in a training schedule coming in right after our long and hard workouts for the week. So let’s look at why they are so important, why they tend to suck and what you can do about that.

What is a recovery run and why do we do them

A recovery run (or workout) comes either the next day or later after an especially hard or long workout. You usually see them after speed day or long runs in the training schedule (including mine). Though there is some variation in trainer rational there are a few general rules that are very, very common if not universal. Usually we want you to run them slow, like really slow at least 30 seconds per km slower than your regular relaxed run. Typically they are pretty short about half your speed work distance for the week or about a third of your long run distance. Finally your looking to stay around 65% of your maximum heart rate or at below your typical training run heart rate.

We do recovery runs for a number of reasons officially the biggest reason is to facilitate faster muscle repair by bringing blood flow to the affected muscles and removing the toxins accumulated during the last tough one. I don’t disagree but I think this could be summed up as it makes the next ones suck less than they would have otherwise. You’re removing the lactic acid built up in those tiered muscles and repairing micro tears faster than you otherwise would have by going for a gentle, restorative run. That is the reason that when you’re sore after a tough workout and you get moving, even gently you start to feel better and the soreness starts to go away. There can also be mental benefits to recovery runs but they might not be as evident and you might have to work a bit at it.

When you’re following a training plan, especially a running only plan, you can start to get mentally and physically burnt out. I know that this is happening to me when I start to feel weirdly angry when people innocently ask me “what are you doing later?” And I want to scream, “stop asking me, I’m running later oaky!” Slowing down for a run with no pace goal other than to go super duper slow is an opportunity. Last year towards the end of half marathon training I discovered the art, if you will, of the recovery run and it went from my most skipped workout to the one I liked the most.

Why they suck

Well beyond the obvious that you’re tiered and sore from your last workout which makes them suck recovery runs can feel like they have no real point. Your speed work makes you faster, your long runs build endurance and those shake outs before loosen you up for the next day. What could possibly be the point of getting out there when your performance will suffer to go so slow when you just want to sit on the couch the most? As you’re training gets thicker you might just really want to find an extra rest day in the schedule and why not pick your least favorite run of the week? The turning point for me started to come when I let go of my goals completely for this run and recognizing that it was my recovery run was the one that made me feel good or at least better for all the other runs that week. So here are my (and some other’s) top tips for making your next recovery run suck less. If it’s not something I’ve tried myself I’ve make it with an asterisk.

Tips to improve your recovery run

  • Foam roll after (right after and more after that)
  • Take a very hot, very long epsom salt bath
  • Or an ice bath for as long as you can stand *
  • Practice active recovery by staying moving after a hard workout (yoga is awesome so is walking)
  • Stretch the pain away
  • Actually run some cool down in the workout before
  • Try compression garments during or after your hard workout and or during your recovery run *
  • Hydrate like crazy
  • Walk for a while as a warm up
  • Figure out your personal sweet spot for how long the suck will last during your recovery workouts
  • Pick a flat route*
  • Go somewhere you really want to run
  • Recovery run with a slower friend

The art of the recovery run

With all that said here’s what I do now. Now I’ve gotten to the point where while I still want to stay home when I listen to my muscles and it does suck at least at first but following this guideline it’s pretty much my favorite run of the week in some ways too. The first thing I do is let go of any goals and just go as slow as necessary to enjoy it including unlimited walk breaks. I also have done enough of them now to know that the first 3 km are going to hurt for sure, maybe even 5 but after that it will get better. I also make it a point to wear one of my favorite cutest outfits even if they won’t stand up for long runs or more serious training runs. So I make sure it’s clean and look forward to that. When training gets intense I end up wearing the same thing over and over again an often by the end of the week it’s a bit smelly. I’ll also make it a point to run a route that I love even if that means I drive to the start. If I’m really in danger of skipping I’ll schedule a run date with the parental units since they are older and slower, then I’m bailing on them if I skip. This can make me accountable when I really don’t want to be. All of this taken together makes me genuinely look forward to it now.

As important as all of that is probably the biggest thing I do to actually try to enjoy my run is prepare after the last hard one. For years I doubted the validity of foam rolling until I caved during my first half marathon training cycle and made my own cheap one. Now I swear by it! The other thing is a hot, long epsom salt bath. The customer we’re currently corking for tweaked his back very badly during marathon training this past weekend. I told him to get some epsom salts, add extra to the hottest bath he can stand, bring a computer in to watch something and hang out as long as possible and that’s what I do. That and foam rolling right after and more later that night and sometimes recovery runs actually no longer suck at all, sometimes.

What if yours don’t suck

If you’ve read all that and are thinking ‘hmmm, I must just be really lucky or good at recovery runs I’m here to tell you two things. One is those thoughts aren’t true and the next is you’re running wrong. Since they tend to come after your hard workout for the week if you’re not doing anything preventative and they don’t suck there’s a good chance you’re not pushing hard enough the day before. There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to be super sore the day after but if you are literally never feeling it for your recovery run then you might have more to give!

Do your recovery runs suck? What are your top tips for making them suck less? How do you use compression garments in the process because this makes me curious!

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