The Art of Recovery

May 23, 2016

Running expert Nate Vandervest shares why recovery is important — and how you can make the most of it.

With spring race season in full swing, I want to touch on a key area of your training you may be missing out on: recovery. Here’s what you should know about recovery between workouts and recovery from races.

The no-pain-no-gain, crawl-to-your-car, knock-down-drag-out type workouts might give you a mental boost, but are they the best type of workouts day after day? When it comes to increasing performance, the answer is definitely NO. 

Each individual is different and can handle a different training load. The key is knowing who YOU are and doing the best workout to reach your goals. We know this is a demanding sport, and the injury rate among runners bears this out. Most runners can handle two or three hard or quality workouts a week.

When I say “quality” workout, I mean runs like sprints, hills, intervals, tempos, fartleks, paced runs and the long run — runs that leave you knowing you’ve worked hard. The key point here is this: you have to work hard enough that your body decides to get better, but then you need to give your body the appropriate time to make it better. So how is this done?

1. Time. Typically after a hard workout, you want to give the body 48 hours before the next hard workout. Some people can run hard on less time and some people will need more time. Use the hard/easy principle of running hard one day and easy the next. 

2. Intensity. Just because you ran hard yesterday doesn’t mean that you can’t run today.  What it does mean is that your pace will likely be easy and you will run anywhere from a short to intermediate distance. The goal of this workout is to recover and get better, not to work too hard and stress the body again. I find this to be most runners’ big training mistake, running slightly too fast all the time. It gets to be the “black hole” of training. It’s not fast enough to get faster, but it’s not slow enough to be easy either.

3. Sleep. You need a lot of sleep for your body to recover. You’d eventually get better if you got six hours of a sleep a night, but you’ll see quicker gains if you get 8-9 hours. The hormones released at night start the repair and rebuild process — so the more sleep you get, the more rebuilding will occur.

4. Nutrition. Think of your body as a high-performance machine. It needs high-quality fuel to replenish and repair itself for the next workout. Personally, I wonder how much better my high school — and especially college — running career would have been if I had eaten to fuel my body versus eating just for the taste of things.

Now you know the basics for setting up a good training plan for optimal recovery. What should you do to recover from a race?

The race distance, terrain and conditions all play a role in post-race recovery. Listing to your body is critical because it will tell you when it’s feeling good enough to get back to regular training. That said, there are also some general guidelines to follow. Remember that not every race is created equal. I have recovered from road marathons in a couple weeks and then spent more than a month recovering from a hot, hilly trail marathon.

Race Distance Recovery Guidelines

5K — Being a short race, not a lot of damage is done to the body, so typically you won’t need more than a couple of days to get back to regular training.

10K — Still a “short” race, but with some pretty high demands on the body. After this race you might have some soreness that needs to be resolved, so take it easy for three to six days before getting back into your regular training.

Half Marathon (13.1 miles) — With this distance, we get into another realm of recovery. Most half marathoners train hard for months on end. After this race it’s a good idea to take seven to 10 days nice and easy. Really focus on how your body is feeling to figure out when to get back to regular training.

Marathon (26.2 miles) — Like the half marathon, most people have trained continuously for months to run and race this distance. Being the longest race, it also needs the longest recovery — a minimum of 14 days to recover from a road marathon, and even longer depending on the terrain and conditions. Because the race is so long, the body gets pretty beat up. It will take three to four days just to repair the damage done to your muscles. After that, it will take up to two weeks before your muscles’ power production is back to pre-race levels.

This should help you for the rest of the running season. Remember to factor in time, intensity, sleep and nutrition and you will see big gains in your training. After races, really listen to your body to tell you when it is time to get back to regular training. During this time you can go out for nice easy runs of variable distances, but you should not feel drained at the end of them.  When you get back to quality workouts you should be able to hit your splits or paces as intended — if not, back off for a couple more days.

Always Running,

Nate Vandervest
Running Coach, CSCS, CES

Nate is a running coach and strength coach who specializes in running assessments, strength training and personalized running programs. For more information contact [email protected]