In high school, I thought every run (warmup, cool down, recovery) was a race. Pace – preferably a very quick pace – was critical. I would religiously track each second of my runs, stopping my watch for a few seconds if I had to pause before crossing a street. If I ran a new or unfamiliar route, I would hop in my car afterward to measure the distance to the tenth of a mile and then calculate my overall pace for the run (pre-GPS days). Even when I was on vacation and came upon a beautiful new vista, I would press on without slowing to appreciate the view. I was worried that if I didn’t run as hard as I could every day, my body would forget how to run fast.
My obsession with pace began the summer before my sophomore year in high school. That summer I did most of my training with a guy teammate older and faster than me. We ran most of our runs around 6:30 pace. In the beginning, it was all I could do to hang on, but gradually I became somewhat accustomed to the blistering pace. For the next three years, from that summer until I went to college, I rarely ran anything slower than 6:50 pace.
I clearly remember running a five-mile route one winter afternoon. I didn’t feel well and thought I was running slow, so I kept pushing the pace to run faster and faster. After clocking the route and calculating my pace, I realized I hadn’t felt well because I was running 6:20 pace. I was probably a high school junior or senior at the time.
I wish I’d learned that warmups, cool downs, and recovery runs (runs the day after a hard workout or race) should be run at an easy, conversational pace. On recovery runs, you should be able to comfortably tell a story and laugh at your running partners’ jokes; however, if you can full-on sing, you might be running a little too slow. Returning from recovery runs feeling renewed and energized should be the rule, not the exception.
When I got to college, my teammates quickly taught me to slow down on easy days. Looking back, I realize there were days I should have run even slower to allow myself to fully recover before my next hard workout. Years later I am finally learning (thanks to a coach I’ve worked with) that hard workouts only translate into greater speed and fitness when they are followed by proper recovery. Easy, comfortable runs (along with proper hydration, nutrition, and sleep) are part of that recovery process.
Why should recovery runs be run at an easy, relaxed pace?
- If you run too fast on your easy days, you carry fatigue into your next hard workout, preventing you from nailing your paces and running as fast as you otherwise could. Running comfortably on easy days allows you to recover and run your next workout at optimal paces.
- When accumulated fatigue builds up over time from working too hard day after day, your body can no longer keep up with recovery and adaptation. Rather than building up stronger and faster, you begin to break down. Running too fast every day leads to overtraining, burnout, and injury.
- Running easy and relaxed feels really good. On a good day, a recovery run should feel like a nice massage for your body, facilitating blood flow and loosening your muscles and joints, leaving you feeling refreshed.
Granted, if you’re running three days a week, you have license to run hard for each run if you want to. However, if you’re doing 5+ runs/workouts a week, at least a couple of them should be pretty chill.
The pace of easy, conversational runs will probably vary day to day. Last fall I would wear my GPS watch on easy days but not look at it until the run was finished. I noticed the day following a hard workout, my recovery runs averaged around 8:00-8:30 pace. The next day my easy run was closer to 7:45 pace even though the effort felt similar to the day before. I was more recovered, so an easy pace was naturally a little faster. Recovery pace will also vary based on how much sleep you’ve had or if your body is fighting off an oncoming illness. Easy runs should be run based on feel, not based on the watch.
Running too fast all the time leads to fatigue and injury, while taking easy days easy leads to greater fitness and health. Check out these two articles, “The Benefits of Running Slow” and “Train Slower, Race Faster” to read more about the benefits of slowing down.