Training and Recovery

by Jon Sinclair

There is an old adage among old runners that you must rest to get strong. At first that might seem counter intuitive, after all, isn't training about working harder to get stronger? Both ideas are, of course, true. Hard training followed by adequate recovery allows the body to adapt to the unusual stress and become stronger and more prepared for the same stress should it occur again. In that way, through weeks and months of training, athletes become stronger and faster. At least that's the way we'd like it to work.

In fact, for most people things get confused. How often should I train hard? How much should I rest before racing? Should I take a day off completely before races? What counts as a hard run? All these questions involve recovering for and from hard efforts or races and need to be answered by anyone interested in getting more out of their training and racing.

Most people have heard of the hard/easy method of training and the concept exists in most sports. If hard work is done one day, there is need to have the next day off or to train at an easy level of effort to rest and adapt to the previous exertion and to prepare for the next hard effort on the following day. This 48 hour cycle seems to fit most people. It appears, through the testing of muscle tissue, that recovery can be as quick as 36 hours although age, sex, health, extent of the training or racing stress and any number of other factors may affect recovery. Continual hard training without resting leads to chronic fatigue, injury, illness, and at best a mediocre approach to training. Without rest a tired athlete can manage only a mediocre workout, certainly not one that will elevate the athlete's level of fitness.

To enhance fitness a program of hard/easy training will stair step the athlete to ever better levels of strength. Each hard effort followed by appropriate rest to enable the athlete to again train at an even higher level. Someone who trains at a moderate effort for 30 minutes every day of the week would benefit greatly by running harder or longer on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and then running less on off days.

For most people 3 harder days each week may work but recovery times may vary widely and some may find a midweek hard run combined with a second hard run or race on the weekends most workable. Long runs count as hard workouts too, and even though they may be run at slow speeds they should be treated as a hard workout and granted adequate recovery. Long runs of 60 minutes or more deplete glycogen fuel supplies in your muscles, blood stream and liver. Adequate recovery should be planned to replete those supplies and insure strong legs before resuming hard training.

How much rest is necessary before racing? There is no simple answer because the variables are so many. First, we'll examine the approach to an important race. Perhaps you've spent months getting ready and the guy down the street is taunting you with jokes about your slow legs. The race is not being used just as a developmental tool for training. The needed amount of rest begins with tapering down your mileage and intensity for 2 weeks prior to the event. Do half the normal mileage, take more rest between hard workouts (add an extra day) and for the couple of hard workouts that are left add some extra intensity and reduce the length of the workouts. Long runs should be cut back or removed from the schedule. All of the above will increase your readiness for a hard effort and the added intensity will deliver heightened fitness. This type of preparation is known as coming to a peak. The last three days before the race should be easy jogging. You might try doing some easy 10 to 15 second "strides" which are efforts run at slightly faster than race pace with lots of rest to insure complete recovery between efforts.

For most people, taking a day off with complete rest right before a competition is not a good idea. A short run of less than 20 minutes will generally make your legs feel better than no activity at all. Total rest will sometimes make your legs feel heavy and tired and unless you normally have a day off before a hard training day it's not a good idea to do it before a race.

If the race is developmental in nature, less important and only a stepping stone to greater things later in the year, then the rest necessary for racing becomes a function of importance of the outcome. The more rest and tapering, the better the chance of an excellent race result. Less rest will deliver a less excellent result but also less interruption to the maintenance and advancement of fitness. Identifying which races are important and deserve a peak and which are less important and can be used as a training effort is a necessary step in early planning.

How much rest do you need after a hard race? For complete recovery, one day for each mile of a race might be a good answer but variability exists around how much and what type of training you've been doing. Don't train hard on tired legs or stiff muscles. Plan easy recovery days until your legs feel "normal" and then cautiously resume your training schedule.

In summary:

  • Use a hard/easy method of training to deliver the best training effect
  • Make rest days very easy efforts so your hard days can be much harder and more developmental
  • Individualize your program by experimenting with varying amounts of rest to determine how much suits you and remember that long, low intensity runs count as hard days too
  • Plan your racing season before you start training to determine when to rest and how much is needed to optimize the important race efforts
  • Use the last two weeks before a big competition to "taper" and "peak" by running half of your normal mileage and adding a little extra intensity
  • Remember, you have to rest to get strong. No one runs excellent race efforts on tired legs!