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Summer Recovery: The Hard/Easy Method Explained

If you have started your training this summer for a fall marathon or half (or about to start it) and have been closely following a training schedule, you probably will have noticed that there’s always an easy day, recovery run or complete rest day following every hard or long run. This is the classic hard/easy training method that nearly every runner follows. Even though there’s a huge difference among training schedules, every reliable schedule incorporates this hard/easy style of training.

Taking an easy day of running or no running at all after a hard workout only makes sense, particularly in the summer because the heat and humidity drains you even more than in the winter. Alternating easy days of running with days of hard, long runs not only gives your legs (and mind) a valuable break and allows your body a a chance to adapt, but it is actually a more efficient way to improve your running, rather than training hard every day.

But more than any pragmatic benefits, the hard/easy method of training simply provides your body the extra rest it needs. Without adequate rest and recovery, hard running will leave you fatigued and injury-prone.

There’s no way getting around it: Running day after day is tough. Running requires a certain amount of recovery from the fatigue and various stresses it creates. On an elemental level, running beats up your legs. The pounding causes microscopic damage at the cellular level to your running muscles. The cell membranes get torn, swollen and full of waste products. When the cells are at this stage, they are extremely susceptible to injury.

But, miracle of miracles, within about 48 hours the body has repaired most of the damage to its muscles. The recovery time allows your muscles to supply the damaged cells with oxygen (which repairs them) and purge the muscles of the damaging waste products that have accumulated.

If you try to run hard again before your body has repaired itself and is ready for it, you will gradually dig yourself a deeper and deeper hole of fatigue and muscle exhaustion. Eventually, you will be unable to summon the strength to complete a workout. Once in a deep hole like that, it may take weeks of downtime to catch up and it will put you weeks behind schedule for your fall marathon or half.

Training from a single workout us a combination of the intensity of it–speed–and length of it. The harder the workout is, requires a greater recovery.

So clearly, utilizing a hard day/easy day approach is an important component of any training program that works well for any level of runner. But what some runners have found is that they actually need two days of easy running (or recovery runs), rather than just one between every hard run. That’s fine, especially after long weekend runs because it maximizes the gains you make from long aerobic runs.

Other runners have learned another training secret—a complete rest day with no running at all—is the best way to improve and continue training free from injury.

Instead of running five or six days a week, many run every other day. That’s right, for every run you do, you take the next day off from running. But that doesn’t mean you are completely inactive. On the “off day” you substitute some type of aerobic, non–weight bearing cross-training activity and/or weight training for your run. The idea is to provide some muscular or aerobic stimulus, but give your body a total break from the rigors of running.

Such alternative activities cycling, rowing, deep-water-running (especially good) or swimming are OK. Weight training, stretching or yoga are also excellent alternate activities.

All of these alternatives to running will involve different muscles than your main running muscles, which is fine, but you’ll have to exercise some caution not to do too much on your “off” day. Even though these cross-training activities are much less stressful than running, you don’t want to be too aggressive or you won’t get the proper rest you’ll need.

Remember: A rest day is designed to recharge your batteries for the next day of running.

Following a hard/easy routine or hard/easy/easy/hard schedule, at first will mean that you’ll be running fewer miles than a “normal” six- or seven-day training schedule. But since you’ll be well-rested for your running days, you may discover that it’s easier to run longer and faster when you do your workouts because you’ll have more energy and bounce in your legs. (You’ll also be eliminating those worthless “junk” miles coaches caution against running.)

The problem for most runners who do easy, recovery runs is we typically run them too fast, too hard or too long to get a complete recovery. Certainly, the hard days should be tough enough to provide a training stimulus, but the easy days should be easy enough to allow for complete recovery.

How easy should it be? Although that differs from runner to runner, many training experts recommend easy runs be 2-3 minutes slower than your half marathon race pace. That is, if you can race a half at 8-minute per mile pace (approximately 1:45), your recovery runs should be about 10-minute per mile which should feel awfully slow and easy which is precisely the point. Even at that casual pace, the distance of a recovery run should also be limited to approximately 30-50 minutes. Beginners shouldn’t go much longer than 40 minutes on a recovery run. On a recovery run, you can’t go too short or too easy; it’s much more common to go too far or too fast, especially if you’re running with friends who might be on a different plan than you are.

As far as increasing mileage, a good plan is on the hard days to increase it by a mile or two but only on a weekly basis. That is, if a hard day’s run consists of about six miles, only up to seven for that week. For speed work and long runs, add an extra interval to your speed day or 10-15 minutes to your long run.

It will take some experimentation on your part to determine what works best –taking just one easy day between hard workouts or two. Or a complete rest day without any running at all. It will also take some trial-and-error to determine what type of cross-training activity is the most practical for you and one you enjoy the most.

But following a hard/easy schedule (whether the rest days involve running or not) will add bounce to your legs and help to eliminate that tired, stale feeling many runners get in the middle of their summer half or marathon-training build up programs.