Easy days are just as important as workout days. Recover better to run faster: in this article we will explore how to find the appropriate intensity and the right approach to recovery days.Francesco Puppi – Vert.run coach.
The secret to performance is….recovery.
Not epic long runs, killer workouts and fast tempos: the difference is very often made by those humble days “in-between”… What we choose to do between one workout and another can be a game changer on your performance.
Let’s take a moment to consider one of my favorite definitions of training:
A systematic process aimed to modify the performance of an individual, with an adequate series of physical and metabolic stimuli, we can understand why the alternation of hard and easy days is crucial to maximize performance.
In one word: polarization. Easy days have to be easy, just like hard days have to be hard in order to have the most benefits from training. Polarization and adaptation is the key to master this process.
Years of “no pain no gain” mentality and an idea that the harder you push the better, have led many runners to believe that training is just a matter of volume and intensity: the more you put in, the more you get out. Unfortunately, things are not so straightforward and in my opinion that’s one of the beauties of running: if it was easy, everyone would do it! As it often happens, the truth lays in the middle, summarized by a tiny word that I see as a key aspect related to running: balance. Find what works for YOU.
Some runners need two or more easy days to recover adaptation after a hard workout or a race. Even elite runners may take days or weeks (sometimes months!) to recover after an intense effort.
Recovery runs help us loosen our muscles, increase tissue oxygenation and capillarization. They are a great complement to training and volume, even without having a direct impact on the conditional abilities like VO2 max or aerobic threshold that we train with other specific workouts. Any runner can improve up to a point when a recovery run helps speeding up recovery and doesn’t feel like an additional training effort, but rather a facilitator of that process.
Here are a few tips for a good recovery run:
- Keep the intensity very easy: on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 represents no effort and 10 corresponds to max effort, a recovery run should be between 2 and 4. This is called Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE): we talked about it in this article. We use intensity because it’s something both easy to measure (or better, perceive) and it’s not subject to the changes of pace, conditions and grade we find on the trails. We can always keep a low, steady intensity even if other external conditions may vary: by listening to ourselves, which is an invaluable ability that any runner should develop.
- Use breathing as a self-regulation system: never push up to a point where you’re out of breath or you can’t talk
- Decrease the length of the effort: a recovery run should last between 30 and 50 minutes not to exceed the ideal effort. Feel free to cut a bit short from what your plan says if you feel very tired or fatigued.
- Run on a soft, even surface: a smooth trail, with moderate elevation gain, a dirt road, some gravel or grass in a city park
- Don’t look at the GPS and don’t be influenced by data: focus on yourself and what you need to recover, not on how good your average pace may look on Strava
- Remember that training is subject to changes and adaptations: the best thing is to listen to ourselves, talk to our coach and, when in doubt, be conservative. Having a self-care attitude towards training is both useful and suggested. One complete rest day won’t make us any worse and we must not feel guilty about it!
Besides running, cross training with a low-impact, aerobic activity can be the best choice for a recovery day. While it’s often important to learn to run on tired legs and develop the specific adaptations that will make us better trail or ultra runners, other times an alternative activity is actually a better option for a recovery day.
Cycling, swimming, hiking, cross country or backcountry skiing, inline skating, elliptical training are all great in this regard, providing that the same ideas we expressed above apply: low intensity and muscular effort, quality recovery time for the body and the mind. Feel free to substitute a recovery run with a cross training session when you feel particularly tired or fatigued, or when you feel like you need a break from running.
You should always be able to answer the fundamental question: what is the purpose of this workout? What benefit am I getting from this session? Easy runs provide a low-stress stimulus to the muscles, heart and lungs which improves recovery, adds training volume and should leave you feeling fresh for your next hard effort. So slow down and enjoy your easy running for what it should be: easy.