One of the most difficult training concepts to accept is also the very simplest: Rest. That’s right, total rest. Not active rest or cross-training, but complete rest. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a runner, swimmer, cyclist, weight lifter or bowler (OK, maybe not a bowler), but your most important training day should have a big goose egg next to it. A zero. Zilch. Nyet. Nada. Nothing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: How am I going to get any better by doing nothing? Good question but the answer is quite simple: The human body requires rest if it’s going to work/train to optimal capacity.
The body will need even more rest as your training load increases and builds. When you rest–when you take a complete day off from running–is when your body repair itself from the loads you have been placing on it (i.e., the training). Then and only then, will you see the greatest gains in muscular and cardiovascular strength.
Training tears you down; recovery builds you up. The problem is this concept of rest is counter intuitive to what we’re trying to do—get stronger and faster. So if five workouts a week are good, then six must be better. And seven days must be better than six. The more we train, the fitter we will become. Right?
To a point, it’s true. Quite obviously, training is necessary because the stress of it 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 resting or in recovery mode.
Since the majority of important fitness adaptations occur during the recovery or rest 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, you 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 thought of as just a necessary evil. The assumption is that merely finishing a hard workout or long run 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. 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 gains from the same amount of training.
If you buy into the importance of rest and recovery, the all important question is how can I possibly improve by taking more rest?
The answer is: Planning. Any good marathon training schedule has at least one rest day per week slotted in. That’s good. But two may be better for you than one. One or two may be easy workout days with one day reserved for complete rest.
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 that precedes 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 should have a recovery day to fully reap the benefits of 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 or extremely easy running to give you the capacity to properly absorb the hard stuff.
3. Do easy workouts. Light, easy workouts are relatively short and don’t challenge your body enough to create a need for additional recovery. If the easy workouts are too hard, they’ll interfere with your recovery from the most recent key workout.
4. Train hard when you’re ready. Train hard and do your key workouts when you’re actually ready for them, not necessarily when they are on the schedule. For example, after warming up for, or beginning a key workout, if you decide you don’t feel right, bail on the workout and just do a light, stress free one instead.
5. Monitor your recovery status. Learn to listen to your body. If you’re tired, your body is telling you it isn’t getting adequate recovery. If this pattern repeats itself, rework your training schedule by adding more recovery or light workouts.
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-term 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 week.
Here’s how to utilize this. Let’s say, you do your long runs on Saturday and your rest day is Sunday. The other five days you run about five or six miles. Fine.
But by adding a second mid-week rest day you can be fresher and stronger for your training. So instead of doing five miles on Wednesday, you do a shorter long run (shorter than your weekend long run) of about 10 miles. Then, on Thursday, you rest. No running at all.
This way, you haven’t lost any mileage and may gain some strength by doing a second long run. You’ll also be providing yourself with a little better protection from aches and pains.
It also makes sense to give yourself a one-week training break every month. You don’t take a complete break from running; instead, you reduce your weekly mileage by half for the last week of every month (or whichever week you put into your schedule). Research indicates that this one-week break when done every month will result in improved running because you’ll have fresher legs for the next segment of your schedule.
One other plan you might try an implement which was used quite successfully by ’96 Olympic marathoner Mark Coogan (now a successful coach) is taking a week off six weeks out from your peak marathon. What Coogan did was cut his training mileage in half for that one-week period six weeks away from his marathon. During that time, he wouldn’t do any long, hard runs or speed workouts. He would do nothing but easy runs.
His thinking was to give himself one final break before his final stretch drive to the marathon. Six weeks out, he was at his breaking point—mentally and physically—and needed a change of pace for his head and to get his legs back under him.
You should consider it too for the exact same reasons Coogan always took a break: Fresh legs and a fresh approach to the marathon. Those final few weeks of training for the marathon are critical and you don’t want to go into the homestretch on dead legs.
The other time you should definitely consider a break is the most obvious one of all: After the marathon.
You are going to need some serious down time after your monumental 26.2-mile effort. Your body is going to need time to repair all the muscular damage that was done by the training and the marathon and your head will probably need a break from the discipline and emotional buildup.
How much time should you take after the marathon? At least two weeks and maybe as long as a month. Some take less; others more, but take off whatever gives you enough time to recharge the batteries and get pumped up about running again.
You can cross-train during this self-imposed exile from running but you don’t have to. If you’d like to, try some new outdoor activities that you may have been afraid to try during your marathon training. It’s also a good time to reconnect with your family and friends who you may have neglected a little during your marathon training.
Don’t worry about losing all your hard-fought fitness. It will return quite quickly when you get back into your normal running routine. And when you do, you’ll do so feeling great and ready for another challenge.