by Dick Vincent, USATF/I.A.A.F. Level 3/5 Coach
We hear a lot of talk about recovery during training talk and most think of it as taking an easy day after a hard workout so that we can hammer the next workout. We aren’t recovering so that we can train hard, we train hard so that we can recovery. The gains are made during the recovery phase of training. If it was just the hard training that made us better, we could immediately go out after a maximum effort and run even better. But that is not the case. We train hard to break ourselves down. Our immune system then goes to work and not only brings us back to the fitness level we were at, but over compensates and brings us to a higher level of fitness. So yes, the easy rest days are important.
A mistake is made when an athlete thinks of her training and rest days separate from the other parts of their life. It isn’t just about being an athlete when you are training, but also being an athlete away from the field. How hard we rest is determined by how hard we train, how fit we are, and age. But it also depends on our life style. If an athlete is running 50 miles a week but also working 60 hours a week, that athlete isn’t going to recover as quickly as if they were working 40 hours a week. Sleep cheating is one of the biggest sins when we talk about recovery. I remember Bill Rodgers would say about hours of sleep, nine is fine, ten is Zen, but eleven is heaven. Watching the Daily Show until midnight and then dragging yourself out of bed at 5 a.m. to run, before getting the kids off to school is great dedication, but you are compromising your recovery. If you want to be an athlete off the field you will have to make sacrifices in your regular life too, not just when you are on the roads, track, or trails. And how about the runner who has had a long, hard, training week so on their day off they hit the mountains for a 6 hour hike or bicycle a 100 Kilometers. Just because you aren’t running doesn’t necessarily make it a rest/recovery day.
The most productive training schedule is one that balances your life with your hard and easy workouts. The key is to train hard enough to warrant recovery, then take the necessary time to recover, before applying the next dose. An athlete must be fit enough to handle a given intensity in a workout. Someone with low fitness level is not only going to struggle to finish a track workout with lots of intensity and volume, but they are going to need an extended period of time to recover from that workout. It might have been better to have done less volume, recovered quicker, and then done a second workout a few days later, rather than pummel themselves with a workout that leaves them exhausted for a week. Conversely, if a fit athlete is going to slow poke it through their track workout, they won’t need a day off the following day as there isn’t much to recover from.
The rules change with fitness as well. A fit and experienced marathoner can run a hard track workout and the next day go for an easy 8-10 mile run. However for someone else who nearly as fit, that 8-10 mile run the follow day only cancels out any recovery they might have gotten from a good night’s rest and they are just as exhausted at the end of their recovery day as they were after their hard day. They might even be more worn down. That athlete might have been better off with 2-3 easy miles or a day off completely.
Obviously a solid fitness plan takes into account workouts, both hard and easy, recovery days and good night’s rest. But you must also remember that nutrition is a big part of your needs. That is all part of the recovery and building process. The same can be said about stretching, strengthening, and body work. Your long run isn’t going to be nearly as productive if you are under nourished before you start, nor are you doing yourself justice if you gobble down a bag of Fritos when you are finished.
Be that athlete away from the field! Think about how you are going to recover from your vigorous days, but also how you are going to adequately rest so that you can get the most out of your upcoming hard day. How are you going to eat and hydrate so that you encourage recover rather than inhibit it. Make your recovery days productive by training hard, and then rest well so that you can train hard again.