To recovery run, or not to recovery run?
I think recovery jogs can be a great tool; however, I don’t think every runner should do extra “recovery mileage” because it’s not always necessary, especially if the runner has improper running form. The goal of recovery jogs and “maintenance runs” is to promote greater adaptations in the body so that fuel will be processed more efficiently and so that the muscular-skeletal system becomes stronger. However, this is not the only event occurring in the body on these runs; we wish it were that simple.
Recovery runs assume the body can handle the additional stress of said runs. Why can many pros run more than 100 miles in a given week? One major difference between them and mortal runners is running form. The reason pros can run all these additional miles, regardless of pace, has much to do with the fact that few of their runs cause extra stress on the body. Assuming they stick to good data points spelled out in their program, they can run as much as they want without destroying themselves. Sure, it helps that the pro runners have usually been running many years and typically carry a low body weight, but it also helps that they hit the ground with zero additional stress (out of the ordinary) with each foot strike. If you don’t have proper foot strike, there is nothing recovery-like about a recovery run. Rather, you’re still putting more stress on the body. That is the difference running form makes in building a training program. How many miles per week can you run? It depends on your running form. Better runners can run more miles. It has nothing to do with motivation; rather, it has everything to do with posture and foot strike. As it relates to proper foot strike, running too slowly on a recovery run will do more harm than good because form breaks down when the pace is too slow. For that reason, I don’t put much stock on pace during midweek runs, as long as it’s not slower than a regular jog pace and the foot strike is kept ideal.
Additionally, most runners are not doing enough weekly miles to have to incorporate recovery runs/miles. When someone runs 80 or more miles per week, then yes, it’s a no-brainer that many of those miles will be done at a very relaxed pace. That is where recovery runs would enter the picture. However, if a runner only (I use that term loosely) runs 30 - 40 miles per week (or three to five times per week), then how slow does he/she really want to go? It’s better to run a bit faster (or at least at one’s “normal” jogging pace) to gain some fitness/benefits from each run. Let’s be honest, for most runners, there is nothing recovery-like about a 5-mile run if it comes the day after an 18-miler. I’d rather see an athlete stay off his/her feet in that instance to let the body recover for an extra day.
In a similar vein, doing cool-down laps after a track workout isn’t necessary and is somewhat overrated. Those who attend my track workouts know I rarely encourage such laps, and I’m yet to have a runner become injured as a result. I emphasize this point more in the summer when there’s more heat and humidity. In those instances, doing extra running really isn’t necessary; the body may already be overheated. Therefore, depending on who the athlete is, there are times I’d rather not have the additional stress on the body. The walk to the car/subway can be the cool-down. Put the energy into the workout. I wouldn’t want to have a runner tell me he didn’t do the full reps in the workout, yet did a mile cool-down. There are many other activities that give the same benefits as cool-down laps, such as icing, massage, and leg swings. In closing, under ideal conditions, I would encourage cool-down laps, but I’ve talked to enough elite athletes to sense that cool-down laps are an individualized choice, not a necessity.
Train hard (and train right!)