The Art of the Recovery Run

One of the staple elements of an effective running programme is ensuring there’s enough time factored in for recovery. Decades of research has taught us that overtraining decreases performance and increases injury risk, so maximising recovery isn’t just a good idea – it’s vital.

A well-used strategy by coaches is the ‘recovery run’- a lower intensity run that is designed to return the body to a fully fit and well recovered state sooner.

There’s a question to answer though – can the recovery run be more than simply a conduit to returning the body to an event-ready state? Could a recovery run actually contribute to overall fitness and performance benefits?

Let’s see what the science says…

Recovery runs and lactate

We know that there is a solid case for active recovery in programmes, so its inclusion isn’t just based on old-school opinion. The important bit of information when it comes to lactate clearance, however, is the intensity.

Contrary to popular belief, lactate clearance is more effective at higher intensities of recovery exercise. Research shows that ‘active recovery after maximal all-out exercise clears accumulated blood lactate faster than passive recovery in an intensity-dependent manner, with maximum clearance occurring at active recovery of 80% of lactate threshold.’ [1].

Further research suggests that a mixed-modality approach works very effectively too, with  a mixture of high and low intensity recovery work clearing lactate faster than other approaches in this study [2].

Essentially, if your primary aim with a recovery run is removal of lactate, the science tells us to ensure you’re running fast, hard and at a high intensity, at least some of the time anyway!

Recovery run risks

The first rule of any training plan should be to do no harm, but by its very nature a recovery run is higher risk because it’s performed whilst the athlete is experiencing a level of fatigue.

There’s some credible evidence that high training loads contribute to illness and injury [3], so care has to be taken to ensure that recovery run intensity remains within acceptable parameters. High intensity exercise elicits a stress hormone (cortisol) response [4] and elevated stress hormone levels are known to be a factor that increases exercise-induced injury risk [5].

Running whilst fatigued is a balancing act, because we know that the intensity has to be high enough to clear lactate effectively, but low enough that you don’t tip into a very high risk of injury.

One way to get around this is to make it a shorter, flatter run.

Could a recovery run contribute to training goals?

Most people think of recovery runs as something you do simply to get back to running fitness condition sooner, but new thinking has started to re-evaluate the role of the recovery run in programmes.

Maintaining high quality performance under fatigue is vital in most sports. Fatigue is part and parcel of competition, so ensuring you are able to cope in a less-than-perfect state is a key attribute in competition.

Research from football highlights the decline in technical ability during a match due to fatigue [6]. This won’t be isolated to just football either – all sports will see similar results, it’s just football has a lot of focus on it. This suggests that an area of gain can be from performance under fatigue.

Instead of trying to avoid fatigue, is there value in embracing it and making it a key feature of training?

There’s thinking that running whilst fatigued improves running efficiency. Whilst this may be difficult to prove or disprove, it’s well known that running economy declines under fatigue [7]. There’s scope therefore, to use recovery runs to enhance technical performance.

Using the pre-fatigued state to work on technique and efficiency drills could feasibly be a way to improve overall running performance whilst still allowing recovery to take place.

Recovery run – best practice

Having studied the science, we can make the following recommendations for maximising the effectiveness of your recovery runs…

  1. Maintain a high intensity – research shows heart rates of 80% and above clear lactate most effectively.
  2. Keep recovery runs short – fatigue increases injury risk. Whilst you’re running hard, keep it short. No more than 20 minutes.
  3. Use it to practice technique – a recovery run is the perfect time to practice technique drills, so you’ll maintain effective running economy under fatigue.

By wearing KYMIRA clothing for your recovery runs you further enhance the benefits and reduce the injury risk. Enhanced blood flow stimulated by the infrared fabric helps to improve tissue elasticity, reducing injury risk. It also helps to speed the removal of exercise-induced waste products.

See the KYMIRA running range here.


[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24739289/

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16320173/

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26822969/

[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18787373/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18083631/

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15233599/

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