Active Recovery for Runners

There is a certain point for may new runners when they cross the threshold of wanting to do more with their training. Perhaps we’ve been walking, run/walking, or running a few days a week, but we want to take it to the next level. Tackling a longer distance or multi-day event is on the horizon, but we feel maybe it’s biting off more than we can chew. — more training, more miles, more effort. If we play our cards right and plan our training properly, we can add a few more days of training per week without overdoing it. We call that Active Recovery.

Coach Mary-Katherine Fleming from the Train Like a Mother Club caps the recovery run at 120  beats per minute. Yes. Exceed 120 beats per minute and you must either slow down or walk. This is very hard to master, and she admits, “It takes time. This is called aerobic conditioning. No one likes to talk about the aerobic threshold.” What I love about this example, though, is that even if this is difficult for you to run and keep your heart rate this low (actually it’s barely a jog…more like a slow shuffle), it’s something to consider when you are trying to determine the relative effort and speed of the recovery run. You probably won’t like the numbers your watch is returning, but with patience — like months of this — you may find that your easy recovery runs will get faster, meaning your aerobic threshold will increase.

Coach MK says, “The purpose of the recovery ‘shuffle’ is that your muscles are going to get up to 84% of the oxygen in your bloodstream, and since you’re not technically working hard enough, you’re not using glycogen, and you are repairing your muscles.”

Now, maybe that hard and fast 120 doesn’t work for you, but let’s take that information and extend that to other workouts like swimming, weightlifting, and cycling. You take that slow, steady effort, and translate it to other sports, and you are looking at a very easy session.

As an example, here’s how a typical training week looks for me. In this instance I’m comparing apples (running) to oranges (cycling), but I have heart rate as a medium between the two.

On Monday, you can see my heart rate and paces for a 4 mile negative split run, getting gradually faster. By heart rate zone, I spent just as much time in the higher effort ranges as the lower.

On Tuesday, I was on the bike trainer. While I kept my cadence (leg turnover) high, I kept my resistance low, which means my heart rate barely made it out of zone 1. Don’t get me wrong, I was sweating, but because I kept my heart rate down, I was able to reserve and repair the muscles without breaking them down further from Monday’s run.

Moving on to Wednesday, I had a killer Tempo run, which really taxed me. While this was an interval/fartlek run and I was “bouncing” up and down in pace and heart rate, my effort averaged higher up into the “threshold” zone. After this tough workout, I would need a day off or another recovery day. In order for me to accomplish this workout though, I HAD to take an easier day on Tuesday. If I had pushed harder Tuesday, the results of Wednesday’s workout would not have been as good.

Thursday is typically a day off, or another light cross training day (no running per Coach Christine), Friday is that same “easy” or “recovery” effort either on the bike or run, so I have gas in the tank for whatever my long run throws at me on Saturday. Then Sunday? Nothin’.

While not everyone uses heart rate as a metric, the point here is the intensity level from day to day. 

In case this is not a clear enough example, let’s take a philosophy you might be familiar with, like the Galloway run/walk method. For many people on his plans, you are run/walking 3 days a week. What this might assume is that each of these runs return a higher average heart rate. When Galloway recommends cross-training on non-running days, this is the phenomenon he’s talking about. Keeping effort low, but still moving in other ways besides running. That is the “active recovery” peice.

So I hope this may have cleared up some questions about how you might add volume to your training without overtaxing your system. Let me know what you think in the comments!