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Recovery Runs

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I have never liked the term ”recovery run”, although I do use it occasionally because it is a readily understood term.  However, instead of “recovery” run, I prefer “easy training” run.  In my opinion, every run is a training run.  Each one....including the easy ones....has a training purpose and benefit, or it would not be scheduled.  And every cookbook training schedule written by every running “expert” includes easy runs.


Easy training runs offer three benefits.....(1) they are “rest” because they are run slowly, (2) they help one to “recover” faster from hard workouts than off days do, and (3) they contribute to total mileage.  All three of these benefits are important for a marathoner to make optimum progress.


In the 1988 edition of his book, “The New Competitive Runner’s Handbook”, Bob Glover had this to say concerning the physiologically therapeutic benefits of easy training runs, “Light running the day after a hard session helps prevent injury and circulates blood to fatigued muscles, helping remove accumulated waste products and getting them ready to work again. Consider active rest after hard runs or the day following; this includes stretching, biking, swimming, walking, massage, warm baths, etc.”


Are easy training runs better than completely off days?  I strongly believe they are.  At a minimum, a runner should do some alternate form of “active rest”, as Glover suggests, if s/he doesn’t want to run because of a nagging problem....like the feeling that an injury might be coming on....or just for an occasional psychological break from running.


Having said that, I do believe that days that are completely “off” can be beneficial for most runners.  And the older you are, the more beneficial they are.  Every runner has to find the balance between easy runs (or alternate "active rest" training) and off days that works best for him/her.  Don’t think of it as “either/or”, just as you shouldn’t think of speedwork as doing “either” threshold “or” VO2max training.  A balanced program will include a mix of both in both cases.  Also, don’t think in terms of “what’s the least that I get by with”.  Rather, think “what’s the most that I can tolerate without breaking down or compromising the quality of my overall program”.  In other words, push your limits instead of staying comfortably well within them.  Yes, that philosophy carries a higher risk of injury.  But it also offers a greater opportunity to reach or surpass your goals.


I found in my first running life (age 44-51) that running 6 days/week worked best for me.  As I improved my marathon time from 3:47 to 3:22 over 7 years of getting older, my regular training schedule consisted of 2-3 “hard” workouts, complemented by 4-3 “easy” runs, and one off day.  I seldom varied from that regimen while marathon (fall) or 10k (spring) training.  I took more than one off day/week only while in my biannual 2-4 week R&R breaks between training/racing cycles.  I always scheduled an off day the day before the long run and, usually, an easy run the day after a hard effort.  I found that I was fresher and “more recovered” for the subsequent training week when I scheduled an easy training run instead of an off day the day after a long run.  I think this was because of the “flushing” and revitalizing effect of an easy run vs. an off day.


In my second running life (age 58-61) I needed a second day off each week because of arthritis developing in my hip.  Although my training philosophy disagreed, the second off day was sometimes the day after a long run, simply because that was when my hip complained the most.  Thus, I usually skipped an easy training run and tried to maintain a routine of 2-3 hard workouts/week as often as I could.  In other words, if I had to sacrifice a running day, I made it an easy day as often as I could and kept as much “hard stuff” in my program as I could.


Concerning the importance of the contribution easy runs make to total mileage, a couple of posters implied that there isn’t much difference between the 50 vs. 60 miles/week that results from skipping a couple of 5 mile “recovery runs.  So why worry about it?  I beg to differ.  Sixty miles is 20% more than fifty miles!  That doesn’t matter much for a week or so, especially if you are feeling very fatigued, or think that an injury might be developing, and you might benefit from an unplanned short term mileage cutback.  But, during a 16-week training cycle 20% amounts to a difference of 800 miles vs. 960 miles....and that is significant for your cyclical development!!  Even worse, a 10 mile/week difference extrapolated over a year is 520 miles!  That would have a very noticeable affect on long term progress!!!  A couple of examples that might hit even closer to home....a 20% difference in the long run would mean a maximum LSD of 22-24 miles vs. 26-29 miles....and a 20% swing in LT pace (the most important speed training for a marathoner) for a 7 minute/mile 10k runner would be a deviation from 7:09/mile to 8:35/mile!!!  I think that most experienced marathoners would appreciate those differences.  ;-)  The point is that 10 miles in one week might not sound like a lot on the surface to someone running 50 miles or more, but an unnecessary 20% shortfall of anything over the long term is a heck of a lot to any runner!!


The bottom line.....don’t be suckered into basing fundamental training objectives and plans on a snapshot micro-picture of today or this week.  Keep your focus on the longer term macro-view and make adjustments only as demanded by short term considerations.  Remember that the numerous experts’ proven training programs that call for 3-5 easy training runs each week aren’t the results of brain farts.  They reflect years upon years of running experience, study and data collected from many thousands of runners.