Running on Empty: Making a Case for Recovery Training in Runners

Long-distance runners may balk at adding recovery runs to their programs, but overtraining is the fast track to injury and fatigue. Recovery is a biological imperative—here’s how your clients can do it right.

by Charlie Hoolihan


Recovery requirements for each of the body’s performance systems differ slightly and are affected by such variables as the athlete’s workout intensity, level of conditioning, performance goals and body composition.

Planning and executing a recovery workout is one of the hardest aspects of strength and conditioning programming for any athlete, but even more so for endurance runners. In a sport where running faster, farther and more frequently is a common mantra, the idea of blocking out a few times per week to run a shorter and easier course is often ignored. And even if this method is grudgingly accepted, it may be hindered by poor planning. However, when athletes challenge the same muscle groups and energy systems 5–6 days per week for several weeks at a time, the result is a decrease in the body’s ability to adapt to new challenges and improve capacity (see “Making a Case for Recovery.”) In short, failure to allow the body to experience adequate recovery leads to weakness instead of strength, fatigue instead of energy, and illness instead of wellness (Tiidus 2008).

To improve capacity, the key is to overload the energy system and muscle groups you are targeting, and then allow the body to recover to baseline. Recovering fully from a run workout is complex in that it influences all of the major muscle groups of the lower body, as well as all three major systems needed for energy or performance. Interestingly, recovery requirements for each of these systems differ slightly and are affected by such variables as the athlete’s workout intensity, level of conditioning, performance goals and body composition.

Performance Systems Affected by Running

Run training typically includes specific workouts to improve the body’s ability to convert fuel to energy, improve the body’s delivery of oxygen to muscles, and strengthen the muscles to support the body efficiently over long distances. While many systems are involved in this process, the following is a simple overview of running’s effect on different systems in the body:

THE CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM delivers oxygen to the muscles via the lungs, heart and vascular network, while also stimulating increased production of oxygen-producing mitochondria for muscles. Postworkout recovery of this system takes 12–24 hours, depending largely on an individual’s state of conditioning (Anderson 2013).

THE METABOLIC SYSTEM processes all the fuel sources available to the muscles, such as oxygen, glycogen, lipids and lactate. This system is also responsible for processing the byproducts of muscle damage from workouts, including a buildup of lactate (Janssen 2001; Carmichael & Rutberg 2012). Restoration of the metabolic system to baseline measurements can take 24–96 hours or longer, depending on the workout intensity.

THE NEUROMUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM consists of the body’s support and propulsion network: muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, nerves and bones. Strengthening this system can boost overall running efficiency through healthy and stable joint complexes and improved neuromuscular connections. Recovery timing after strength and speed workouts is similar to the timing after workouts that stimulate the metabolic system (24–96 hours) (Anderson 2013; Magness 2014; Janssen 2001).

Three Primary Run Sessions: Key Points

The body’s energy systems are challenged by three primary types of run sessions: endurance, tempo and interval. Together, these sessions are designed to improve all three of the systems described above. Because each type of run challenges the body differently, each requires a slightly different recovery protocol.


The endurance run is a staple of run training. The goal is to cover a distance up to race distance at a pace slightly slower than race pace. This type of run is primarily designed to expand aerobic capacity via several mechanisms in the cardiovascular system. The two most important mechanisms affected are MITOCHONDRIAL BIOGENESIS (MB) and VASOENDOTHELIAL GROWTH FACTOR (VEGF). MB is the creation of new mitochondria, and VEGF encourages the growth of new blood vessels (Ventura-Clapier, Mettauer & Bigard 2007). Recovery time: 12–48 hours, depending on distance and pace.


The tempo run is shorter and faster than the endurance run. It is designed to stimulate the blood lactate clearance mechanism. Running close to our fastest pace for a sustained period of 30–60 minutes produces lactate, which can be cleared from the bloodstream and recycled as fuel—up to a certain amount. If that threshold is exceeded, oxygen transport to the muscles is inhibited, and the runner has to slow down. Training at faster, sustained paces helps the body process more accumulated lactate for fuel during races (Janssen 2001). This highly complex chemical process is centered mainly within the metabolic system. Recovery time: 24–96 hours, or longer.


The interval run is designed to improve speed and strength. It consists of very fast but short (1- to 10-minute) running intervals with a specific amount of recovery time between runs. This pattern creates a physiological challenge that forces the body to develop stronger muscles, tendons and neuromuscular connections. This, in turn, improves running economy, defined as the ability to run at a specific speed using the least amount of oxygen and glycogen (muscle fuel). Recovery time: 24–96 hours.

Tempo and interval runs have the potential to create numerous benefits because they challenge almost all aspects of a runner’s performance physiology and have the most overall impact; for these reasons, they also require the most recovery (Janssen 2001).

Once all of these three different and demanding sessions are included in the training week, other slower-paced runs can be interspersed to increase mileage and/or provide recovery from hard training sessions (Anderson 2013).

Additional Determinants of Recovery Protocols

Here are some recovery run guidelines to provide a framework for individual variation. Protocols will be based, in part, on what kind of runner you or your clients are. While there are many variables, two primary examples—individual physiology and personal goals—are considered for the purpose of this analysis.

INDIVIDUAL PHYSIOLOGIES can lean toward primarily slow-twitch, type I endurance muscle fibers; primarily fast-twitch, type II speed and strength muscle fibers; or a combination of both. Fast-twitch-dominant individuals tend to automatically use more stored muscle glycogen than slow-twitch individuals. Because glycogen is a primary source of fuel during endurance efforts, recovery strategies for fast-twitch runners will need to be easier, shorter and more specifically paced. Slow-twitch-dominant athletes can handle more volume during recovery, while blended-fiber athletes fall in between the two recovery strategies (McMillan 2016; Magness 2014).

PERFORMANCE GOALS also differ widely among runners. Professional runners, elite interscholastic competitors and championship-level age-grouper amateurs have training plans with specific mileage goals. Recovery runs for these athletes must focus partially on maintaining a weekly mileage level and partially on returning the runners to homeostasis after hard training. These two purposes require fairly strict adherence to specific paces and distances in order to minimize demands on energy systems while the body is processing byproducts of challenging workouts.

The same rules apply to casual recreational runners, but these athletes can have quite a bit more leeway with specific mileage goals beyond the three key training runs. For this group, recovery runs are fine, but cross-training with low-impact modalities—like swimming, cycling, rowing or stair climbing—is often recommended to reduce injury risk (Pierce, Murr & Moss 2012).

Cross-training is a great way to recover from running hard miles, enabling the body to stay active without more running-related eccentric muscle contractions (eccentric being the most damaging type). Cycling, stair climbing, water running, swimming and rowing can all provide a cardiovascular or metabolic stimulus without the inherent ground-force impact of running. Some research has indicated cross-training modalities can help maintain and improve overall running fitness (Anderson 2013; Pierce, Murr & Moss 2012).

Note that some runners with championship-level goals also use cross-training activities as part of their recovery, but at present, most coaches and training plans favor running for the majority of a training regimen.

Guidelines for Recovery Running


In most cases, the run should be time-based rather than distance-based, to keep mileage goals somewhat out of the equation and to ensure that the run focuses on recovery. The length of time should be around 25%–50% of the time for long endurance runs.


Recovery runs should be easy efforts that create minimal demands on the metabolic system. The goal is to run easily and efficiently enough to use a minimum amount of muscle glycogen as fuel, while avoiding muscle damage and metabolic-system challenges.

Use the talk test to determine how hard a client is working. Being able to talk (or sing) while running indicates that the muscles are getting enough oxygen and lactate production is low.

Sometimes, paces based on race times—in this case 1–3 minutes slower than half-marathon or marathon pace—are recommended. World-ranked Kenyans capable of running marathons at an under-5-minute-per-mile pace sometimes recover at an 8-minute-per-mile pace (Magness 2014).

The pace should be easy and comfortable but with good technique comparable to race pace to promote and maintain long-term running economy. Good technique at any speed is important for maintaining proper long-term mechanics.

Additionally, recovery should be enjoyable. Walking for all or part of the workout is allowed and can qualify as recovery “running,” especially in time-based recovery efforts.

Interval-style running utilizing pickups is also possible. This involves 3- to 5-minute intervals of running that steadily increase to a tempo pace without going into excess lactate production. While pickup intervals may seem counter to the concept of recovery runs, they can be helpful, especially for fast-twitch runners. These intervals are designed to be strong and fast with good technique, but they should end before breathing patterns breach talk-test parameters. Easy running or walking should follow each pickup (Magness 2014).


Your clients need to honor achy muscles and tendons. Pain indicates potential for injury as well as the possibility of increasing rather than decreasing inflammation. If aches and pains fail to dissipate within the first 10–15 minutes of a run, the session should end there. And if pain persists for more than 24 hours after a run session, it’s advisable to consult a physician for next steps.

Muscle soreness and damage from previous workouts are a natural part of improving capacity, but they can subtly or overtly alter gait mechanics. These alterations not only affect muscles’ ability to generate force at different lengths, angles and speeds; they also reduce dynamic joint stability and shock absorption (Tiidus 2008).

Run, Recover, Repeat

Recovery from hard training is essential to endurance runners. Taking the time to effectively plan workouts and recovery strategies can provide great long-term benefits for your clients. The biggest hurdle may be convincing these dedicated athletes—elite or casual—of the necessity of easing up, slowing down, cutting mileage or cross-training between strenuous training sessions. But it’s well worth the effort. As illustrated by this analysis, employing well-conceived recovery strategies can keep burnout and injury at bay while bringing running clients a few steps closer to their goals.


Anderson, O. 2013. Running Science. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Carmichael, C., & Rutberg, J. 2017. The Time-Crunched Cyclist (3rd ed.): Race-Winning Fitness in 6 Hours a Week. Boulder, CO: VeloPress.

Hausswirth, C., & Mujika, I. 2013. Recovery for Performance in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Janssen, P. 2001. Lactate Threshold Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Magness, S. 2014. The Science of Running: How to Find Your Limit and Train to Maximize Your Performance. San Rafael, CA: Origin Press.

McMillan, G. 2016. The three runner types: Do you know your type? Accessed Aug. 14, 2017: mcmillanrun

Pierce, W.J., Murr, S., & Moss, R. 2012. Runner’s World Run Less, Run Faster: Become a Faster, Stronger Runner with the Revolutionary First Training Program. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Tiidus, P.M. 2008. Skeletal Muscle Damage and Repair. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Ventura-Clapier, R., Mettauer, B., & Bigard, X. 2007. Beneficial effects of endurance training on cardiac and skeletal muscle energy metabolism in heart failure. Cardiovascular Research, 73 (1), 10–18.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Hoolihan Charlie Hoolihan, is a NASM-certified personal trainer with more than 40 years’ experience training athletes at all distances of competition, from swimming and track sprints to Ironman triathlons. Contact him at

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