When you are training for a marathon, half marathon or any distance, your fitness isn’t built up while you are doing hard, long runs or speed training. On the contrary. Training tears you down; recovery builds you up. The recovery process is absolutely critical to any running success you might have because it is during this easy period or days during a training cycle when you actually gains strength and fitness.
Obviously, training is critically important because the stress of running flips a number of hormonal and genetic switches in your body which allows each part of the body to adapt in a way that strengthens it in time for the next workout. But these adaptations can only unfold when your body is in recovery mode.
Since the majority of important fitness adaptations occur during the recovery phase, the goal of any training program should be to maximize recovery. So the conventional thinking should be switched around: That is, instead of recovering to train harder, runners should train to recover.
There’s an important distinction. When you recover to train harder the next day, the focus is entirely on the workouts and rest or recovery is simply a necessary evil. The assumption is that merely finishing a hard, long run or speed workout delivers far-reaching benefits, but that isn’t necessarily true.
By switching your thinking around—training to recover–you look at the hard workouts against the backdrop of the recovery days and runs that come before and after. The benefit of this thinking is it allows you to adopt better ways of balancing your workouts and recovery periods so you gain greater fitness from the same amount of training.
What exactly constitutes a rest or recovery day? It’s different for every runner, but recovery days should be much less strenuous than your hard workouts, both in total distance and intensity or speed. A recovery day can be a complete day of rest, a very easy run or some form of cross-training.
If you choose to run on a recovery day—and most of us—the distance and intensity is key to making it truly an easy day. The greatest training mistake most of us make is running too hard or too long on recovery days. Doing so, doesn’t allow the body to recover adequately which will likely compromise your next hard workout or long run. Making matters worse, not giving yourself the recovery time it needs, makes you even more susceptible to injuries.
A good easy or recovery day should be a stress-free, relaxed run at a moderate pace (slower than normal). Avoid hills, pushing the pace or any type of running which taxes you.
How slow should you run on a recovery day? Slow. Approximately long run pace or about two minutes per mile slower than 10-K or half-marathon race pace. For example, if you run a half marathon at 7-minute pace (roughly 91 minutes), recovery day pace should be about 9-minute pace. It’s pretty tough to go too slow on a recovery day and way too easy to go too fast. Slow is much better than fast.
Another good idea is to try and run at least one recovery run on a softer surface such as grass or dirt trail to give your legs a break by lessening the pounding. Running on a softer surface at least once a week reduces the cumulative effect of all the pounding your body takes. It also gives your head a bit of a break from the roads.
Here are six specific ways you can train for recovery:
1. Create a need for recovery. Effective recovery (and adaptation) works when it follows a training stress. The stronger the training stimulus prior to a period of rest (up to a point), the more pronounced the recovery-adaptation response will be. Most training programs will have two to four key workouts a week. Following each hard workout, you must have a recovery day to benefit from the hard training.
2. Rest before; recover afterward. Because your two to four key workouts are the most challenging training you’ll do on a weekly basis, they need to be preceded by adequate rest and then recovery to give you the capacity to absorb them.
3. Do easy runs. Easy runs are relatively short and aren’t taxing so you don’t challenge your body enough to create a need for additional recovery. If the easy runs are too hard, they’ll interfere with your recovery from the most recent key workout. Easy runs carry fitness benefits, because they enhance your running efficiency by forcing your muscles to perform in a pre-fatigued state. Easy runs can be as little as 20-30 minutes of slow jogging.
4. Train hard when you’re ready. Train hard and do your key workouts when you are actually ready for them, not necessarily when they are on the schedule. For example, after warming up for and/or beginning a key workout, if you decide you don’t feel right, bail on the workout and just do an easy run. Your body is probably sending a message that you haven’t recovered enough yet.
5. Monitor your recovery status. Learn to listen to your body. If it’s telling you that you aren’t getting adequate rest, rework your training by adding more recovery.
6. Incorporate recovery weeks into your training. After a three or four-week training cycle, plan a week of reduced-volume training for full recovery. Planning a recovery week into your training ensures that you don’t accumulate fatigue during a long training program. It also allows you to train harder during your hard weeks than you’d be able to do if you didn’t take planned recovery weeks.