This blog discusses the reasons why recovery running is an important part of any athlete’s training program and reflects on insights that the author noticed during a training camp in Iten, Kenya.
This blog was originally written by Coach Callum Jones for The Kenya Experience running camps.
A small village called Iten in rural Kenya has produced some of the finest distance runners in the history of the sport; Olympic champions, world record holders and professional athletes choose to make this their training ground. It’s not uncommon to bump into someone on the street who can casually talk about their marathon pb of 2.08 or below who are far from boasting, or see a group or 20 athletes training at the track, all of whom have sub 28 minute 10k’s to their name.
Would it then surprise you to see these same athletes jogging along the dirt trails at 9:00/mile pace?
We hear stories of top Kenyan athletes running well in excess of 100 miles per week but while that is indeed true for many individuals, there is still an overwhelming consensus that quality beats quantity. To train at ones best the body must be in good physical condition and the Kenyans are well aware of this fact. One aspect they believe is an important factor in this is recovery runs, and these are taken very seriously.
What is a recovery run?
When you train at a high intensity your muscles accumulate blood lactate, a by-product of anaerobic respiration. While we won’t delve into the science during this article it is important to understand that hard training takes its toll on the body and that without taking the time to recover it is extremely difficult to adapt to the stresses of exercise leading to fatigue, “burnout” and ultimately injury, not to mention that you won’t be getting the benefits of the hard training anyway.
A recovery run is a relatively short run at a very comfortable pace – typically under 60% of your maximum HR. These have a number of benefits but they may not be the ones you thought of. It is commonly taught that recovery runs will aid the removal of waste products from the body after hard training, however, there is in fact very little scientific evidence supporting this. Studies have shown that even after extremely taxing workouts, almost 100% of excess accumulated lactate is metabolised or removed from the body within 1 hour of the workout. Nor has there been any research indicating that recovery runs promote the repair of damaged tissues, restore glycogen reserves in the muscles or elicit any other physiological response that aids the recovery process…
So what’s the point?
- At approximately 60% of maximum HR your heart reaches its maximum stroke volume. This means that despite running with a significantly reduced rate of energy expenditure, your heart muscle is contracting with as much force as it possibly can on each beat. Even at this easy pace you are training your heart muscle without fatiguing the rest of your body.
- At a cellular level running at this pace stimulates growth of the mitochondria (the organelle responsible for energy production), increase capillary capacity and the ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles.
- There are also several neuromuscular benefits. Although you may think of running as a task that you don’t need to “think” about, your brain is still in control of your limbs. Running at a slow pace allows you to develop neuromuscular pathways by focussing on correct running technique.
I think the third point above has particular relevance to Kenyan running culture. It is no coincidence that the Kenyans you see on TV look so fluent and graceful in the way they move. Take David Rudisha’s 800m world record for example; he front ran 2 laps of the track without breaking form, for sure he was working hard but he certainly didn’t look like it. Kenyans use their slow runs to work on their form. They are consciously thinking during the run; how their feet contact the ground, how it feels to breath, where their arms are positioned, how their heads are held etc. It’s very difficult to consider these things when running a hard track session, but when the time comes to run fast they don’t need to think about it, it’s been ingrained into their system.
So in fact, during a ‘recovery run’ you are still training your body; you are still stressing certain systems and certain parts of the body that will actually lead to improvement. But while doing so, since you are operating at an effort well below your max, your body can still continue it’s natural recovery process.
The Experts Viewpoint:
Last December, I joined a run with a group of athletes at St Patricks High School in Iten. I arrived not knowing what the workout would be. However having heard terrifying stories about how quick these guys were I was pretty nervous. What followed was very surprising. We did a warm up of some reaction games that involved jumping over a line painted on the ground and followed it with a 25 minute jog, in single file around a football field at approximately 10-12 minutes per mile pace. Legendary coach Brother Colm O’ Connell was leading the session and I asked what the point was. Otherwise I felt like I’d miss an opportunity to train hard amongst some of the worlds best runners. He replied “It’s so you can think”. I was able to think about where my feet were landing and how I was running compared to guy in front of me, how my breathing sounded compared to the guy behind me.
Of course these guys work incredibly hard when it’s time to do so, but they also take the time to think about their bodies, something that is often overlooked in the western training culture!
So the take home message may well be that these runs themselves may not directly influence ‘recovery’, but they allow you to continue to improve your fitness and work on your form, whilst you go through the natural recovery process. Which leads me to ask, if you can continue to get better whilst not compromising your recovery then why not?
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About the Author: Callum Jones
Callum is an elite middle-long distance runner with over 15 years of competitive experience. As he has gathered experience through his own endeavours he has turned his attention to coaching and helping others to develop their running ability. Find out more about Callum and the services of Train Smarter Run Faster by clicking here.
Callum also works with The Kenya Experience team where he helps to run training camps in Iten Kenya throughout the year.
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