The Importance of Recovery Runs in Marathon Training

Almost every (dare I say, every…) marathon runner deals with some form of discomfort, nagging pain, or injury at one time or another. It really just goes with the territory. But this doesn’t make marathons dangerous or even risky, it just means most runners need to be better about the process that’s usually an afterthought. And that’s recovery. There are lots of types of recovery that runners should be engaging in, but today I want to talk about the importance of recovery runs. They are essential during marathon training.

So, why are recovery runs essential in marathon training? Here you’ll find out the following about recovery runs:

  • pace and distance of them
  • when and where to put them in your schedule (this matters!)
  • their ability to reduce injury and illness
  • how they will improve running performance
  • how they can increase your endurance

Are absent recovery runs the missing link in you reaching your potential as a marathon runner? Let’s find out.

But first, let’s make sure you know what a recovery run entails.

Photo By Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

Pace and Distance of Recovery Runs

We often associate the word “recovering” with an illness, so even though it has positive connotations, when used in that way it means you’re not quite back to your normal self. But recovery runs aren’t for people getting over an injury or a bad workout. They are an essential component of any quality marathon training programs that all runners need to include. If you have a marathon training plan that doesn’t have you doing any, it’s time to reconsider your choice.

Recovery runs are generally the shortest runs in your week, 3 – 5 miles is a good rule of thumb. Though they could be a tad shorter, or a few miles longer for those more experienced.

These are at your easy pace. Not your friend’s easy pace, YOUR easy pace.

In fact, many people argue that there is no such thing as going too slowly on these days as long as you are at least in a jog. According to Running Magazine, Eliud Kipchoge, the fastest marathon runner in the world, runs his easy paced days at 9:40/mile pace, which is close to 5 minutes per mile slower than his marathon race pace. WOW.

Not sure what easy pace means? Here are a few good ways to know you’re doing it right.

  1. You can breathe in and out through your nose with your mouth closed.
  2. You can easily hold a conversation with someone. Running alone? It’s ok to talk to yourself, we won’t tell.
  3. You’re a 3-4 on a scale of 1 -10 with perceived rate of exertion (PRE). Light exertion to moderately easy as defined by Runner’s Blueprint.
  4. 60 – 70 percent of your maximum heart rate…or less!
  5. Anywhere from 1.5 – 3 minutes slower than your marathon goal pace.

In a nutshell, recovery runs are at an easy to very easy pace, and are relatively short in distance. And there’s a time and a place for them.

Let’s next talk about when you should be performing recovery runs during the week.

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When and Where to Put Recovery Runs in Your Schedule

Recovery runs should be used by every runner who wants to train smart. They’ve been given this name because you are using them to recover your body after a tough workout, either with increased speed or distance. You’re essentially taking time to get back to “normal” so you can be prepared for the next hard run. Just as those workouts have a purpose, so do recovery runs.

When you run long, hard, or both, your legs feel the extra impact. Joints may be stiff and muscles tight. Many runners use this as a sign that they should take the day off but just sitting around letting your legs get stiff is actually worse. Instead, this is a sign that you need to get the legs going to increase circulation and give the joints and muscles some easy movement.

Here’s a sample schedule of where recovery runs should be included:

Sunday: Long Run
Monday: Recovery Run
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday: Speed/Quality workout
Thursday: Recovery Run
Friday: Medium Long Run (Optional)
Saturday: OFF or Cross Train

The above would be a 5-day plan. I personally run 6 days per week, so I have another recovery run on Saturday. If you do skip the medium long run, it would be smart to make one of the recovery runs a little longer in distance, but still easy paced!

I know the pic is not that clear, but you can see above what week 6 looked like of my marathon training. LR, RR, Quality, RR (I don’t know why it says Fartlek – it wasn’t), MLR, RR. There is a recovery run sandwiched between any harder day.

Ideally your recovery runs will occur within 24 hours after your long run or hard effort run. My coach has said he doesn’t have a lot of hard and fast rules but this is one he stands firmly by:

Never go from a Speed day to a Long Run without a Recovery Run in between. And never go from a Long Run to a Speed Day without a Recovery Run in between.

Medium long runs could also fit into that depending on the type of work you’re doing within them. But it is not as much of a concern if they are mostly easy paced. With that said, pay attention to your body signs.

So why is it so essential to fit these in? What will happen if you don’t? Let’s answer those important questions next.

How Recovery Runs Keep You Healthy

Marathons can get a bad rap sometimes…people who don’t know what they’re talking about may even refer to them as dangerous.

We do ask a lot of ourselves as marathon runners, that is certain. But I would never call it dangerous, and I talk all about that in this article.

Marathon training in and of itself isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s that runners aren’t often training properly. And that’s when they get hurt, overworked, or burnt out.

There are so many nuances to marathon training that it’s hard to get it all right. Runners have a really hard time understanding that easy running is actually beneficial. And so they never do it. I was this runner for a very long time.

I now understand why recovery runs are so valuable. Doing them right and religiously is probably the number one part of marathon training that’s going to keep you healthy and able to run without pain.

As I said, you never want to go from hard workout to hard workout without a recovery run inbetween, If you skip this important step, it won’t be long before tightness or stress starts to build up somewhere. And it’s hard to go back once it starts.

Continuously skipping easy effort running is going to result in one or several of the typical ailments that runners fear:

  • Achilles Tendonitis
  • Plantar Fasciitis
  • Calf Strains
  • Stress Fractures

And this is just to name a few. You’re also putting yourself at risk for illness. You can only put your body through so much before it shuts down on you. If you never give your legs a break from hard running, they’ll quit working properly for you.

Recovery runs get you back to your springy, fresh self. If you do them right, you’ll feel better afterwards, not worse. You’ll stay healthy and ready to crush your next workout.

Which brings me to the next important point.

Recovery Runs Will Help Your Running Performance and Speed

Naturally you’re probably wondering how such easy-paced running, 1.5 – 3 min/mile slower than your marathon goal pace, could make you faster. I get that it sounds weird.

But here’s why it works.

Say your speed workout calls for 8 x 200 meters at your 5K pace as part of a quality run. The recovery run gets you ready for that workout. If you skip the recovery run, chances are your legs won’t be ready to hit those paces. They’ll feel dead or lethargic because you didn’t give them the easy movement to prime them for a tough workout.

The recovery run does a great job of helping ligaments, tendons, muscles, and joints have some time to adapt to the stress your putting on your body through running. That makes you ready for the hard efforts.

Additionally, taking time to pay attention to your form during recovery runs will carry over to your speed days. Technique and form matters a lot on those days to maximize your pace, but it’s hard to pay attention to it in the moment and when you’re overly fatigued.

Skipping the recovery runs will eventually catch up with you by sabotaging your speed. Don’t let that happen.

Let’s talk one more major benefit of recovery runs, and that’s how they play an important role in building endurance.

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

Building Endurance Through Recovery Runs

A large part of reaching your potential in the marathon comes from putting in the right work to get you to where you can run all 26.2 miles at your goal pace. I’ve talked in depth about this topic in both of the following articles: “Building Running Endurance for a Marathon,” and “Want to Be Prepared for Your Marathon? Run More Miles.”

In each of those articles I discuss how important gradually increasing mileage is throughout a marathon training cycle. So many runners just don’t run enough miles to be fully prepared. This was me for both my marathons that I ran in my 20s and I paid for it big time those last 6-7 miles. I just wasn’t ready.

Recovery runs are the perfect way to build a stronger mileage base without over training. You might be dead set on running 50 miles per week, but if you never incorporate easy paced days and are always trying to grind out your goal marathon pace or faster, this won’t be sustainable. You’re back to the burnt-out, exhausted, injured phase that I talked about earlier.

75 – 80% of your running mileage should be at an easy pace. This helps you stay healthy while building your aerobic engine. And recovery runs are included in that total. They are not what some people refer to as junk miles (those are bad). Instead, they have a very clear purpose in how they’ll land you at your goal.

One other way that they allow you to build endurance is that by including them after hard days instead of taking a rest, your body has to adapt as you run on tired legs. This is called cumulative fatigue, and you can read more about that here. It is excellent preparation for when you’re tapered and primed for race day.

Want to get to that place where you feel like you could run forever? Recovery runs help with that.

Let’s Recap the Recovery Run

Recovery runs are so important. So here’s a quick recap so you make sure you’re doing them correctly:

  • Recovery runs should be completed within about 24 hours (or next day) after a hard effort run or long run
  • 3 – 5 miles in length is a good distance for a recovery run; it could be a bit longer if you’re trying to build up a higher base of mileage and have more experience – just keep it light enough that your ready for your next hard day.
  • You should be able to hold a conversation easily. When it doubt, slow it down even more…this is where you might have to control your ego.

Remember that the number one goal in your training is to get to the starting line of your marathon healthy. Don’t try to be the tough guy or gal who skips the easy days, because it’ll cost you. Keep the easy days easy, and the hard days hard and you’ll come out on top.

Featured Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

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