The Benefits of Speeding Up Recovery In Interval Workouts

Most runners and coaches tend to focus exclusively on the fast portions of an interval workout, devoting little thought or importance to the recovery period between repetitions. In other words, interval workouts’ directives will often dictate the precise duration and intensity (or pace) for the fast repetition (e.g. “8 x 400 meters at 5K race pace”) but merely duration or distance for the recovery interval (e.g. “1-minute rest” or “200-meter jog”).

As a result, recovery intervals are often an afterthought—a rest period during which intensity is irrelevant. By refocusing on the recovery portion of interval workouts, however, runners can achieve a wider array of benefits. Specifically, when the intensity of the recovery interval is considered in addition to duration, you can dramatically alter the training effect of a workout.

“When you look at workouts, most of the time people are only concerned with the speed and the length of [the repeat]… and the recovery portion kind of gets neglected,” explains University of Houston cross country coach Steve Magness, who also coaches a small stable of elite post-collegiate athletes. “I think that’s a mistake because how you manipulate the recovery portion can dictate how you feel during the actual running of [the fast segment]. You can manipulate the stress response by manipulating nothing other than the recovery portion.”

The key to rethinking the recovery intervals is to visualize them not as rest, but rather as a “float”—a quality aerobic pace that is a bit slower than a traditional tempo but certainly more than a jog. Workouts with quick recovery intervals offer a host of benefits for all distance runners, from beginners to elites, mid-distance specialists to ultramarathoners. Magness says, “[athletes] will ask, ‘How fast do you want the fast [segment]?’  I’ll say, ‘As fast as you can maintain while still keeping your recovery [interval] at a quick, rolling tempo.’ They quickly learn how hard they can press on the hard section while still being able to recover [at a quality pace].”

“If people don’t get the feeling, I’ll say… ‘I want [the recovery segment] just slower than marathon pace’” says Magness. He also characterizes this pace as how you feel at the end of a regular distance run on a day when you’re feeling good and start to drop the pace. “You’re not pushing [too hard], but just feeling good and pressing it a little bit,” he says. That’s the recovery pace to aim for—hard to describe in words, but easy enough to learn once you try it in training. Magness summarizes, “If I could classify it in any way, it’s de-emphasizing the fast section and emphasizing the recovery section.”

Great Minds Paved The Path

The concept of “floating” recovery intervals isn’t new but it’s underutilized by many coaches and athletes. Top coaches from around the world have employed some variation on this theme for some time.

One coach who helped pioneer “float” recoveries is Australian Pat Clohessy, who worked with former marathon world-record holder Rob “Deek” de Castella. Clohessy regularly used an 8 x 400-meter workout with 200-meter “float” recoveries in Deek’s and others’ training. In this session, sometimes called “Deek’s Quarters” or “Aussie Quarters,” de Castella would run the “floats” quickly enough that he could cover the workout’s 3 miles in about 14 minutes, averaging near his anaerobic threshold.

In the same vein, Australian great Steve Moneghetti—a 2:08 marathoner and World Championships bronze medalist—co-developed a 20-minute workout now known as the “Mona” Fartlek. The workout consists of faster repetitions of 2 x 90 seconds, 4 x 60 seconds, 4 x 30 seconds, and 4 x 15 seconds, all with equal duration “float” recoveries. Moneghetti’s pace would only vary about 30 seconds per mile between the faster segments and the “float” recoveries. “I used to straddle my anaerobic threshold (just over in the repetitions and just under in the ‘floats’) which is the ideal training to push up the threshold,” he explains.

Famed marathon coach Renato Canova is also a proponent of quick recoveries. A workout like 3 x 3-5 miles at marathon pace is highly race specific due to the volume of running at race pace, but Canova enhances the workout’s benefits greatly by prescribing a recovery segment of one mile at a mere 15 to 30 seconds slower than marathon pace.

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What’s In It For Me?

Quicker recovery intervals help runners learn how to better deal with the byproducts of fatigue.

“[With] a short recovery ‘float’… you’re learning how to process and deal with [fatigue] at a still pretty high-end aerobic pace,” says Magness. “I think that—especially for 5K and 10K runners—is huge.”

Michael Smith, Georgetown University’s director of cross country and track & field, agrees, saying “You need to teach the body to clear lactate while running… [not] while standing or walking.”

Blending different paces together in a workout allows you to target multiple capacities. Citing Clohessy’s “Aussie Quarters” session as an example, Magness notes that it can act as aerobic maintenance—due to the workout averaging near anaerobic threshold pace—as well as being more specific to mid-distance events due to the faster-paced running and erratic, inconsistent rhythm. In other words, for the 10K and shorter races, it can be more event-specific than a tempo run, yet offer many similar benefits aerobically. “It’s a great way to practice subtle shifts of gears… which I think is a [great] talent to have,” Magness says.

Quick recovery segments during interval workouts will keep a runner in check and prevent them from pushing too hard on the faster segments. “[High] intensity is high-risk,” Smith explains, and “[quick recovery segments] make sure you don’t get out of control on your intensity.” Smith stresses that for beginners who are still developing their capacity to work, these types of workouts are important. “You’re going to really improve your [capacity to work] and total more quality running,” he says. “And in a safer way, too.”

Learning to recover at a quick pace can be vital to working through low patches in longer races like the marathon or ultra marathons, says Magness. “If you can recover and learn to feel OK running 15 to 20 seconds slower than marathon pace in the middle of a workout, then you have that weapon in your back pocket when it comes to [the] marathon race,” he explains. Developing this skill, both psychologically and physiologically, can be the difference between rallying and finishing strong or unraveling and running positive splits.

Lastly, interval workouts with quicker recovery reps are easily adjustable to a number of different environments, whether you’re running by feel or trying to hit specific splits, and can be run on the track, road or even trails.

RELATED: Everything Runners Need To Know About Interval Workouts

Try These Quick-Recovery Workouts 

Shorter Workouts

Aussie Quarters

Run 8 x 400 meters with 200 meters “float” recovery. You should be able to average near your anaerobic threshold pace (roughly the pace you could maintain in a one-hour race). The focus should be on maintaining a quality pace during the “float.”

A similar workout to try is the Mona Fartlek, outlined above. The Mona Fartlek has the advantage of being time-based, making it easy to perform anywhere. Athletes like Deek and Moneghetti would run these workouts almost every week of the year—they are that useful and versatile.

1-Minute Alternations

Once you’ve mastered Aussie Quarters, try running 10 sets of 1:00 “on” with 1:00 “float” (20 minutes of total running). Over several weeks or months, as you build strength and your capacity for work, you can extend these 1-minute alternations gradually to 15 or 20 sets. When Magness was preparing professional runner Sara Hall for a half marathon, he had her progress this workout to 20 sets.

Longer Workouts

Half-Mile Alternations

Alternate a half-mile “on” with a half-mile “float” for a distance of 4 to 12 miles, extending your total distance at you get stronger over a couple months. To make this workout specific to an event like the half marathon or marathon, aim for your alternations to average out to your goal race pace.

For the half marathon, a reasonable amount of work would be 4 to 8 miles of these alternations, while for the marathon, 6 to 12 miles is better. By averaging race pace, you are developing specific endurance. Magness explains, “You’re extending your ability to handle a race-specific pace, while also being able to recover and deal with [fatigue] at the same time.”

Marathon Pace Repeats

Run repeats of 2 or 3 miles at marathon pace (MP) with 1-mile recoveries 20 to 30 seconds-per-mile slower than MP. Start with 4 x 2 miles at MP with 1-mile float recoveries between repetitions and gradually build your total volume over a number of weeks. A 4-week progression could be structured as follows: 3 x 3 miles, then 4 x 3 miles, then 7 x 2 miles, then 5 x 3 miles, all with 1-mile floating recoveries between repetitions at 20 to 30 seconds slower than MP.

Many marathoners will run marathon-pace tempo runs, but with these quick recoveries you can cover a greater total distance while still roughly averaging marathon pace. As with the half-mile alternations that average out to MP, this workout will build specific endurance.

Design Your Own Workouts

When it comes to running workouts with quick recovery intervals, the sessions outlined above are only a few of the possibilities. Use your imagination and get creative by using different distances, time intervals, landmarks, or topographic features (especially if running a trail) to structure your workout.

The longer the workout, the more specific it will be to longer events like the marathon and ultramarathons, while shorter workouts like the Mona Fartlek will be more specific to the 5K and 10K. Even still, both longer and shorter versions of these workouts will be useful to most runners. “The key with all this,” Magness concludes, “is a shifting of the mindset… to run the recovery section faster, emphasizing that.”

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