Saturday, April 4, 2015

How Recovery Running Helps Us Run Faster

Here is a copy of my most recent article submitted to the Clifton Road Runners Monthly Newsletter!

If you reside in New Jersey and would like to become a member of Clifton Road Runners, please visit this website for more information about how you can join my team: 

Why Recovery Running is NECESSARY to Help Us Run Faster
by Shannon McGinn, Certified Distance Running Coach
April 2015

     Many people find it difficult to train at Recovery Pace. They fear that slow running is not going to help them run faster.  I get it.  When we have only a limited amount of time to train, it becomes imperative that we get the most out of it.  Pushing ourselves as much as possible seems to be the best way to get faster.  Some consider slow running “Junk” and would rather rest completely than waste their time. I want to explain how slow mileage is actually necessary to help us run our best.

  We should first clarify what Junk Miles are. The term Junk comes from the idea that we only need a certain amount of quality training to optimize our fitness gains. Any additional mileage over that optimal personalized amount causes unnecessary strain on the body and is deemed Junk. In theory this makes sense. Train only as much as we need to maximize our potential. Anything more than “just enough” will increase risk while providing no additional gains. The problem with this theory is that most runners do not actually train anywhere near that tipping point. 

  Even though some may argue that slow paced running has little value, “Junk” does not actually refer to slow-paced running. The terms describes Moderate-to-Fast paced running that is neither easy enough to help recovery nor fast enough to trigger adaptation. This “no man’s land” training pace just so happens to be the bread-and-butter of many recreational runners who can’t figure out why they are not able to get faster. Ironically, slowing down some training mileage may be exactly what is needed in order to run faster when it matters most. The problem I think many have with accurately identifying Junk begins with the difficulty runners have with identifying or accepting their optimal training paces.   

One you understand how recovery running serves a very specific and necessary purpose in a balanced plan, you will be on your way to becoming a faster you!  A balanced plan should contain varied paced training runs. Fast Workouts should comprise a small percentage of training mileage, about 10-25%. Long Runs should be about  30%. This means the remaining 50% of training mileage should be Easy or Very Easy.  Look at your log.  Do you run easy about 50% of the time?  I know I do!

When I start with new runners, there is resistance to slowing down. Most need a lot of convincing to run their slow days as slow as I ask them to. To help set minds at ease, we need to know that the most successful runners include recovery running in their training.  

Steve Magness, a runner, a coach, an exercise physiologist, and the author of The Science of Running has done plenty of research on this subject.  He discovered that the early morning training runs of Elite Kenyan runners were done at 9-10 minutes per mile.  So lets think about this. Elites who can run sub-5 minute pace for the marathon find it necessary to include some training at TWICE their race pace.  Meanwhile, many recreational runners will insist mileage is useless if the pace is one or two minutes per mile slower than their current or projected marathon race pace.
After stressing the body with a hard workout we must understand that it is only during rest that the body can heal and become stronger. If you run too hard day after day, adaption simply can not occur.  Runners either fail to improve or they end up burned out or injured. 

     Understanding how the body fuels itself is also important. The body uses glycogen to fuel the faster workouts. Glycogen is fast efficient fuel but it can take more than 24 hours and sometimes up to 72 hours to fully replenish. Train hard day after day, depleting your glycogen store more and more, and eventually your body will have no choice but to find alternate fuel sources. In extreme situations, to fuel your workouts the body will need to break down muscle structures, like enzymes or mitochondria, which are the very same things that we are trying to build up to in order run faster. (See Magness). This result is actually worse than diminishing returns. It is a Negative Return, as training more make us less fit.
Whereas faster running is fueled by glycogen, slower running is fueled by fat.  This means we can still restore glycogen while training, but only if we train at a slow enough pace. The slower the pace, the more fat is burned and the less glycogen is used. 

     Although complete rest would be the fastest way to restore glycogen, it is not the fastest way to fully recover.  Slow running can speed up recovery by increasing circulation of blood to areas that need to heal while also helping to circulate out waste. This explain why elite runners report feeling better after a slow day of running than after a complete day off. 

Other benefits include weight management and stress management.  Running burns .63 calories  x your weight in pounds no matter if run fast or slow, so slow running helps to keep us lean. Running helps many of us maintain peace of mind. Fast running may feel amazing, but slow running is better than no running when running is being used to manage stress.  Complete rest does not offer any of those benefits. 

     Once a runner realizes that (1) daily moderate-to-fast paced training is actually holding them back by delaying adaptation and/or pushing them into negative returns and (2) appropriate amounts of easy running will speed recovery, speed adaptation and allow them to train harder on the hard days, those who called slow running “Junk” will suddenly realize they had things backwards all along. 

Practical Application: When following a plan, pay attention to which days are characterized as Rest, Recovery, or Easy Days. In my practice, I use the term General Maintenance and Recovery to identify easy day.  These easy days can not be run too slow but they can be run too fast.  

      When trying to identify your appropriate recovery pace, aim for at least 60-120 seconds slower than your current marathon race pace (not your goal marathon pace). You can use a Finish Time Predictor Calculator find your projected marathon time from a recent race result.  One you see how slow you should train on easy days and realize about 50% of your training can be easy, savor those days. Find a friend who will slower with you.  Enjoy the scenery.  Take your time.  Appreciate running without pressure to perform. Consider the Recovery Run a gift as well as the secret to fast racing while maintaining longevity in our sport.
Read more from Steve Magness here:

Finish Time Predictor Calculator here:


Shannon McGinn is an RRCA Certified Distance Running Coach and the owner of Creating Momentum, LLC.  She is a life-long runner, becoming more involved in racing after surviving cancer.  She considers herself a marathon and ultramarathon specialist, earning several USATF National Championship top 10 or better placements in the 50k and 50M distances. She has not missed a day of running since December 2011. Please feel free to send any questions about this article to

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