One of the most common training errors runners make is training too hard or too long on recovery days. I will be the first to admit that until recently, my training regiment was notorious for falling trap to this mistake. While I would cut down on the mileage during a recovery day, I would cover the distance at marathon pace or even faster, not allowing my body proper recovery after a hard effort. I wondered why I was chronically sore…and why my 10k race pace wasn’t much faster than my 6 mile training run pace. My muscles and nervous system were constantly taxed and fatigued, never having the opportunity to rebound.
This year, I started doing some of my miles slower, particularly the recovery runs which I now run as much as 1 – 1 ½ minutes slower than marathon pace. I found that during my recovery runs, running with folks that normally train at a slower pace helps tremendously with this…..my eleven year old son makes a great recovery day partner….and provides a great reason to slow it down! One of the first things I noticed was that the chronic soreness began to dissipate. Although I would be sore a day or two after a particularly long or hard run, after a couple of days of easy running or cross training I would feel better. A chronic injury I had been battling for over 2 years also stayed under control, and with the balance of hard days and easy days, I found I was able to bring my total weekly mileage up to its highest level ever by balancing hard/easy efforts appropriately.
What exactly constitutes a recovery day? It varies from person to person depending on their physiology, age, predisposition to injury, fitness level and other factors. For some it means a complete day of rest, for others a day of cross training, and for others a day of “easy” running that is shorter in distance and lower in intensity than your “hard” or “quality” days. If you train too hard on a scheduled recovery day, you will be tired for your next quality workout and it won’t go as well as planned. This can often lead to a vicious cycle, and the tendency is to run hard the next scheduled recovery day to make up for the lackluster “hard” day. This results in a decline in performance in racing times and in your quality workouts. Just as it takes discipline to push through a 20 miler or a taxing VO2 max or Lactate Threshold session, it also takes discipline to back off and run slow the day or two following a hard session.
If you train too long during recovery days, particularly when you start adding higher intensity workouts such as lactate threshold or VO2Max sessions, it will also compromise your training. Too many slow miles on your recovery days will leave you fatigued during your hard days, and will impede your overall progress.
Proper race pacing can make or break your half marathon or marathon experience and performance. The outcome can just as easily be determined by what happens the first few miles after the gun goes off as much as what happens during the many weeks of training and preparation. What is the best pacing strategy? Should you run hard early on while you are fresh? Run easy at the start and clock a negative split? Or how about running an even pace throughout the entire race?
On recovery days, it also helps to minimize the pounding on your legs and reduce the stress to your muscles and nervous system. Running on soft surfaces during recovery days will help reduce the cumulative impact your legs and back experience over the course of the week. Since you are doing your recovery days on the days your muscles are least resilient, it makes sense to reduce the impact. It is also recommended that you avoid hilly courses on recovery days….running uphill requires more effort and running downhill increases muscle damage, which is exactly the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. For some folks, or after certain workouts (feeling beat up after that hilly 18-miler last Saturday), not running at all, but cross training on the elliptical or in the pool water running or swimming may provide the ideal recovery day! In these workouts, you enhance your recovery by increasing blood flow, but there is no additional pounding. For others, or after certain workouts, a complete day of rest may be necessary. I always build one day of complete rest into my training schedule, and one day of cross training in the pool swimming or water running.
For those who use a heart rate monitor to train, the device can be a great tool in preventing yourself from training too hard on recovery days. You should keep your heart rate below 75 percent of your maximal heart rate. For example, if your maximal heart rate is 185 beats per minute, you will want to keep it below 139 beats per minute during your recovery workout.
Another good rule of thumb for recovery days is to run them 2 minutes slower than your 10-mile or Half Marathon pace. For example, if your half marathon pace is 8 minutes per mile, run you recovery run at 10 minute per mile pace! Take it easy, enjoy a chat with a training partner and rejuvenate!
Pfitzinger, P., and S. Douglas. 2001. Advanced Marathoning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.