Improve Your Recovery Runs (Run|Drill|Walk)

running shoe

Today I wanted to talk about a way to make your recovery runs suck less.  If you find yourself struggling the day after a hard track workout with the awful feeling of running– and just can’t wait to be done with it– here’s a variation on an old idea that might really help.

I Used to Think Run-Walk Was the Answer

About 20 years ago, I started training with a group of marathon runners using Jeff Galloway’s run-walk program.  I even went so far as to sign up for Jeff Galloway’s program and attend one of his lectures in a cramped hotel conference room outside of Washington, DC.  At the time, I thought I had discovered the Fountain of Youth.  I could run quite fast during each 8-minute running interval and recovery nicely during the one-minute walk break that came afterwards.  Even if I ran hard and long the day before, I could always do a run-walk quite speedily the next day.

I still think that Jeff Galloway’s run-walk program is brilliant.  By its very nature, running combines two factors that just naturally lead to injuries.  First, there’s the repetitive nature of running.  Each stride is just like the stride before it.  Running injuries are like carpal tunnel syndrome– they are repetitive stress injuries.  Second, there’s the element of fatigue, which causes slight breakdowns in running form.  Combine these two factors, and you get imperfect biomechanics repeated over and over again– and which only get worse as the body gets more fatigued.  But the run-walk system breaks these patterns with each walking break.  It gives us a chance to recover just a tiny bit and tighten up the biomechanics.  But, as good as it was, it still could be better.

Run-Drill-Walk is Much Better

The answer goes back to one of my earlier posts on the need for muscle tension.  Like lactic acid, muscle tension gets a bum rap.  By now, everyone should know that lactic acid doesn’t make your muscles sore– instead it is a valuable fuel that your body needs to work efficiently.  If you’re still in the Dark Ages and need some enlightenment, you can read my post on how to train your lactic acid system or, if you don’t trust me, you can read what Matt Fitzgerald has to say about the topic.  Similarly, muscle tension is the subject of some nasty witch hunts.  Muscle tension is absolutely essential for runners because it facilitates elasticity and energy return.  Again, here is some background reading on the subject.  Without a proper amount of muscle tension, you’ll feel flat as a pancake in your running.  Instead of bounding down the running path like a gazelle, you’ll be muscling your way around like a giant slug.

One of the goals of a recovery run is to recover and get yourself ready for your next hard effort.  As Steve Magness notes, however, really taxing workouts sap muscle tension.  Therefore, if you want to run speedily in your next running session, one of your goals needs to be restoring that muscle tension.  This is where running drills come in, because there simply isn’t an easy, faster, or more effective way to restore that “pop” in your muscle elasticity.

What Drills?

Some of my favorite drills for a recovery run are the butt kick, straight leg running, and bench hops.  Normally, the focus of running drills is to improve running form but here the goal is to restore muscle elasticity.

  • Butt Kick.  This is a simple drill that I use purely for restoring muscle elasticity.  In fact, people often criticize it because it teaches the wrong mechanics, which probably is a fair criticism.  Here is a video that I found that demonstrates the movement, but not the explosiveness of the drill needed on a recovery run.  The movement has the knees in a low position and the heel of the foot “flicking” upwards to the butt.  However, unlike the demonstration, I like the movement to have a real explosive “pop” to it– your running shoe should whack forcefully into your butt on each kick.
  • Straight Leg Running.  Another drill I like to toss in my recovery runs is straight leg running.  Again, the goal is to focus on the explosive “pop” in the movement.  Here’s a video that demonstrates the basic movement pattern.

I tend to avoid drills that are much more functional.  For instance, the Kareoke drill (demonstrated here by Lauren Fleshman) is a great drill, but doesn’t have the “pop” that I like on my recovery days.  But don’t feel obliged to stick with the three drills I used as examples– by all means, choose your own, as long as they have a springy bounce to them.

What Does My Recovery Run Look Like?

A typical recovery run looks like a Galloway run-walk run with a few differences.  Here are the components:

  • 5 Minutes of Easy Running.  I do these efforts at a super-easy pace, usually with my heart rate well below the Maffetone 180-Age limitation (I’m 49, so by that formula, my heart rate limit is 131 beats per minute– yet my runs are usually are done at a heart rate lower than 120 beats per minute). Any other day, that would be a wimpy run– but, on a recovery day when I’m fried, I’m happy to dawdle along at an easy pace.
  • 15 Seconds of Drills.  Pretty much your choice of which ones to do (see recommendations above).
  • 1 Minute Easy Walking.  Enjoy the bliss of not running.  Slower is better here.

That’s it!  Just repeat the cycle above ten times and you’ve got a one-hour recovery run.  By the end of it, I tend to feel much better than when I started– exactly what a recovery run is supposed to do.  If I didn’t do a hard run the day before, I’ll add a few hard 8-second hill sprints at the end of the run to keep all my energy systems happily stimulated.

Why Not Just Skip Running for a Day

I’ll admit it.  Often when I’m really tired, I’ll take an unplanned day off.  Ideally, this isn’t what I should do.  Why?  Ask any running coach and they’ll tell you that running rewards consistency– perhaps more than any other sport.  It’s better to run two miles every other day in a week than to run seven miles in one day.  And, it’s even better to run 1 mile every day (perhaps with an off-day once a week).  The constant running gives your body the constant stimulation it needs to keep you strong enough to run effectively.

Lack of running consistency is one of the concerns that I have with a lot of triathlete training programs.  Sure, triathletes get a ton of aerobic work, so what’s the harm of backing off the running to get in a few more hours of swimming and cycling workouts.  First, running only three or four days a week instead of five or six days a week is a real hit on consistency.  But the bigger problem comes in when triathletes still manage to do a two-hour long run on the weekend.  Putting that many eggs in one basket adds even more inconsistency because the weekly miles are now so unevenly distributed between the days.  Most running coaches recommend that the long run shouldn’t be more than 20-25% of a runner’s weekly mileage– yet triathletes often make their long run up to 40% or more of their total weekly mileage.  To me, that’s just an injury waiting to happen.  The answer, of course, is shorter runs more consistently throughout the week– and using run/drill/walk recovery runs is probably the easiest way to get there!

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