To Recovery Run, or Not to Recovery Run?
Also, “Cool-Down Laps”?
A recovery jog can be a great tool; however, it depends on myriad factors, here are just a few:
1) First and foremost, what does your running form look like, and how is it related to current injuries and past injuries?
2) What is your weekly mileage for the past 3 months? 6 months? 12 months?
3) How long is the event for which you’re training?
4) How far was the preceding run (i.e., the day prior)?
5) How fast was the preceding run (i.e., the day prior)?
6) How much strength training was done in the past 3 months? 6 months? 12 months?
Let us now dive into some of the rationale:
I typically do not program “recovery jogs” for the runners I coach for several different reasons, most notably because it’s not a necessity, and again, running form has much to do with this decision. Let’s be honest, for many amateur runners, there is nothing “recovery-like” contained in a 4-mile run if it comes the day after an 18-miler (for example). “But hey, this will help me learn how to run on ’tired legs’ and get me ready for the marathon.” Perhaps, but maybe it’ll re-injure your bad hip, knee, etc, and then cause more anxiety/doubt before your marathon. I’d rather see an athlete stay off his/her feet in that instance to let the body recover for an extra day, especially as the long runs increase in distance, and especially the closer we get to the peak race. In this manner, it’s the “recovery runs” that become the straw that breaks the camel’s knee, hip, Achilles, etc. “Quality over quantity.” “Train hard, rest hard”.
The goal of recovery jogs and “maintenance runs” is to promote greater adaptations in the body (i.e., mitochondria and capillaries) so that fuel will be processed more efficiently in the long-term, and so that the musculoskeletal system becomes stronger. However, these are not the only events occurring in the body on these runs; “would that it were so simple”. My rationale for not being a fan of “recovery runs” or “shake-out runs” is that as amateur athletes, we need all the miles we can get and they need to be higher quality! …as opposed to slogging through the pavement on beat-up legs after a brutal workout within the previous 48 hours, and this is where one of my most common expressions comes into play: “I’m not thinking about your muscles or motivation, I’m thinking about your joints, tendons, and ligaments.” Your joints, tendons, and ligaments don’t care about your goals; rather, they simply react to the stress that you give them. On that note, a pilates class or sleeping-in could be better than a recovery run. It depends on the individual.
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For the overwhelming majority of runners, these recovery runs operate under a false assumption the body can handle the additional stress of said runs. On the other hand, why is it that so many professional runners (who get paid to run) can do more than 80 miles in a given week? One major difference between them and us (us mortal runners) is running form, not to mention that their livelihood (bills, rent, etc) depend on it. The reason pros can run all these additional miles, regardless of pace, has much to do with the fact that few of their runs cause extra stress on the body, plus they often have a sponsored masseuse and/or chef waiting for them at home. And assuming they stick to good data points spelled-out in their program, they can run as much as they want without destroying themselves. Sure, it helps that the pro runners have usually been running many years and typically carry a low body weight, but it also helps that they hit the ground with zero additional stress (out of the ordinary) with each foot strike. So, how flawless is your running form?
If you have poor foot strike and/or a history of injuries and/or have shoes that are mismatched for your feet, then there is potentially nothing recovery-like about a recovery run. Rather, you’re still putting more stress on the body that day, but not in a good way. And yes, this is also related to the decision (in general) whether to run on back-to-back days. This is the difference running form makes in building a training program. How many miles per week should I run? Eh, it depends on your running form. The “better” your form, the more miles you can run, hence why I’ve never created a training program for an athlete without having seen them run first. Ultimately, the goal is to hit your race goal off the least amount of miles required, which makes for an efficient program.
In other words, the decision about recovery runs has nothing to do with motivation; rather, it has everything to do with your injury/athletic background and running form (e.g., posture and foot strike). As it relates to proper foot strike, running too slowly on a recovery run will do more harm than good because the mechanics become compounded when the pace is too slow, and I make this point very explicit when I meet with beginners. So, while most people talk about “junk mileage,” I disagree, as it’s more about junk pace! Again, we need all the miles we can get, so every mile counts, but not if those miles are a constant struggle. If your 4-mile recovery run is ~30-40 minutes of “oww, oww, oww, oww, oww, oww, oww”, then what was the point, really?
On that last note, most runners are not doing enough weekly miles to have to incorporate recovery runs/miles. When someone runs 80 or more miles per week, then yes, it’s a no-brainer that many of those miles will be done at a very relaxed pace, hence this is where recovery runs would enter the picture. However, if a runner “only” (I use that term loosely) hits 30-40 miles per week (or only runs 3-5x per week), then how slow of a pace do we really want!? It’s better to run at one’s “normal” jogging pace (plus speed work) to gain some fitness benefits from each run. As a side note, I’ve noticed over the past 20 years that humans (whether it’s kids or adults; athletes or non-athletes) typically have better running form as they run faster (not slower). Another topic for another time.
In a similar vein, doing a “cool-down run” after a track/speed workout isn’t necessary and is somewhat overrated. Those who attend my track workouts know that I never encourage such laps, and I’m yet to have a runner become injured as a result. I emphasize this point more in the summertime when there’s more heat and humidity (at least on the east coast). In those instances, doing extra running really isn’t necessary; the body may already be overheated. Therefore, depending on who the athlete is, there are times I’d rather not have the additional stress on the body. The walk to the car/metro can be the cool-down. Put the energy into the workout itself. For instance, I wouldn’t want to have a runner tell me he/she didn’t do the full reps of a given workout, yet they did a mile cool-down afterward. Ooph.
There are many other activities that give the same benefits as cool-down laps, yet without the impact on the joints, tendons, and ligaments, such as icing, massage, foam rolling, leg swings, easy bike rides, and a dozen more options. In closing, under ideal conditions, I would encourage cool-down laps, but I’ve talked to enough champion athletes to know that cool-down laps are an individualized choice, not a necessity, and there are far more superior reasons as to why you’re injured and/or your “muscles are tight” that have nothing to do with recovery runs or cool-down laps.
Train Smarter, Not Harder!