Q I’ve been running for years and racing 10K to marathon distances. I follow a training plan that I’m comfortable with, but I want to develop a go-to recovery plan. Can you help? – MEGAN
A Recovery is just as important to performance as training and can be a runner’s best tool for easy improvement.
It’s easy to train. Okay, it’s not easy, per se, but mentally it’s easier to go out and actively train toward your goal than it is to rest and recover – especially for those of us in Club Type A (you know who you are).
In fact, in my years of coaching I’ve seen more errors on the recovery end of things than the training end. Meaning, more runners tend to under-recover than overtrain.
It’s not a deliberate mistake but a series of innocent ones that can creep up and progressively evolve into annoying running drags like fatigue, aches and pains, and declines in speed and strength.
All recoveries aren’t equal.
Everyone recovers at different rates, and more importantly, every recovery is like a finger print – unique!
Although developing a core post-race recovery plan is a great idea, it needs to be flexible to allow for the variance in recovery needed.
Race 1: For example, Jane races a half marathon in cool weather, her training base is perfect, she’s well rested and fuelled, and life is nearly perfect. She runs hard and feels great in the days after the race.
Recovery 1: Jane follows her go-to two-week recovery plan, and she ends up running with great energy, no aches, and within her normal training zones (effort/pace) within two weeks post-race.
Race 2: Jane races another half-marathon three months later. It’s the first hot day of the season, the course is hilly, she didn’t sleep well all week, her fuel was off because she was travelling for work, and her boss just told her that she needed to work more hours for the next two months.
Recovery 2: Jane follows her go-to two-week recovery plan, but this time she struggles through every run, her body hurts for weeks, and she’s having a hard time sleeping through the night. She continues to train through it and follow her next training plan even though her body is telling her different. She ends up having to stop running for several weeks down the road due to aches and pains.
Recovery isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.
The key to optimising your post-run and post-race recovery is to develop a flexible plan based on the flow of your life and your body rather than a calendar. Train by the one principle that will never let you down: Recovery is about healing from the overall stress is your life, not just your training or racing.
So if you have a strong race in near perfect conditions, your recovery may feel easier and more effortless than on a day where everything feels hard. Or if you run a demanding course, it may take a few more weeks to feel completely recovered.
When you make the switch to recovering by how your body feels in addition to a general time frame based on the distance of your race, you’ll soon develop a sense for what your body needs to heal.
For example, the general rule for race recovery is to invest one day per mile (1.6km) in the race to training easy—that is, about a month for a marathon and two weeks for a half-marathon. In essence, this is a useful model, but it can also be too little time based on the runner’s needs. On the other hand, it can also be too much time for a young, fit runner who eats well, recovers quickly, and has no stress in his or her life. Personally, I find it takes me longer to heal now than it did when I was in my 20s, but I also travel more than I did back then, which adds additional stress.
You see what I mean?
There isn’t one concrete recovery plan that will work perfectly for every runner or every race, and that is why it’s important to learn how to optimise your recovery in the moment, based on how you feel now and in the coming days.
Recovery isn’t about running at a slower pace; it’s about training at an easier effort.
This goes for day-to-day training, as well. Let’s take two runners: Jessy and Jacob.
Jessy trains by her GPS and by pace. All of her workouts are done by calculations and formulas based on her target goal marathon race in the fall. She runs easy three times per week, with two shorter runs and her long, slow run. All of these runs are done at a 5:55 pace, which is her calculated easy pace based on her recent 10K times. Her tempo runs are done at 5:20 pace and intervals at 4:30-4:40 pace.
Jessy had some success racing in her first year but then began to struggle with niggling aches and pains. Her times have since plateaued, and she’s no longer progressing.
Jacob has been running just as long as Jessy but instead of training by pace, he trains by his body and effort. He’s a yogi by nature, so he knows how to be in tune with his body and flow based on what the day brings. He too runs three easy runs per week – two short and one long, slow run – but he does so based on effort and how he feels. Some days this will be 6:15, and others 5:55. His tempo and speed are all done by effort, so he’s always training in the optimal zone no matter what the pace is on the day.
Because Jacob trains with the flow of his life, he recovers optimally and has been progressing in his training and racing, as well. He is able to train at a truly easy effort, which allows optimal recovery to then allow him to run with better quality on the harder runs (long, speed, tempo).
Two runners who both believe they are training alternately easy and hard for maximum recovery, but only one of them is reaping the benefits of a true recovery.
Easy is easy, and hard is hard – and it has nothing at all to do with pace. The most common mistake I see in recovery is in running your easy days too hard, and the collective effect that has on your healing.
Whether you are recovering from a workout, a build-up phase, or a race, it’s all about tuning into your body, healing from within, and being mindful of the collective stress on your body and mind.
Whether it’s stress at work from the loss of a marriage or loved one, or supporting your spouse through chemo, all of life’s ups and downs require us to adjust to the energy needed to navigate through. This is especially true as we age, and our bodies need more time to heal and fewer miles. You’ll never go wrong when you train to the flow of your body and life.
When I coach my one-on-one clients, I have them rate via colour how they feel overall during the workout. It’s a simple way to track how you felt and how your body is adapting to the training load.
- Yellow = I felt strong and could have done more today.
- Orange = I felt okay, but nothing to write home about. I didn’t feel awful, but I also didn’t feel particularly strong either – somewhere in the middle.
- Red = I was in the “bite me” zone for much of the workout and struggled to finish. I could have played the role of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs after this workout (and other self-defeating thoughts).
You can use this system after a race or workout to track how you’re feeling and avoid pushing into an overtraining or poor recovery phase. When you highlight it in colour (especially on paper logs or calendars) you begin to see the trend and how your body is adapting to the training load (very cool) or recovering post-race.
When you see lots of yellow and a few oranges, you are on the right track, and your body is recovering well. If, however, you begin to see a trend in consistent orange and some red, something is affecting your recovery rate, and it’s time to adjust your plan and add in active or passive recovery to pull in the reins.
Become your own coach and tune into what you need, and you’ll develop the tools to run your best life.