The long runs, hill work outs, strength-training sessions and science experiments of nutrition are winding down. You’ve barely enjoyed the post-race food and beverages when you’re already thinking “Ok let’s do this again!” However, how many runners plan their recovery like they do their training? Likely very few. Now that the fall race season has come to an end, let’s take a look at why it’s important to have a recovery plan and how to safely return to training after racing.
Recovery is as individualized as training. Some runners only need a week off after major races (half/full marathons, ultras, etc) while others may need 2-3 weeks away from running to fully recover. Training (and exercise in general) breaks our body down with the goal being it will be able to repair itself and adapt to become stronger, faster, more resistant to injury, etc. However, many athletes don’t give enough thought or respect to their recovery compared to training. Which is ironic when you think about it. Training breaks the body down, while recovery rebuilds it, so logically it would make sense to spend as much or even MORE time planning recovery. Breakdown and a certain amount of stress is crucial to progress, but without adequate recovery you’re wasting all the hard work you’re putting into training.
How to Design a Recovery Plan
So…about the recovery plan. Generally speaking, it’s beneficial to take at least a week completely off from running after longer races such as half and full marathons, but maybe longer depending on how long you had been training, if you were battling injury, etc. This is both for physical and mental recovery because training for long races is frankly exhausting so it’s necessary to give both the body and mind a break. During the non-running time of recovery, it’s helpful to give your muscles and joints a little TLC, which can be done in a variety of ways. Foam rolling, massage, stretching, and cross training are all ways to help the recovery process along and gives runners something to keep their minds off the fact they aren’t running. The initial few weeks after long races is the perfect time to explore other activities you’ve always wanted to do, but either didn’t have the time during training or didn’t want to try anything new out of concern for injury. Examples include but are not limited to biking, swimming, yoga, basketball, volleyball…the list is endless. Basically anything different than running is helpful to provide a different type of stress and training for your body, at least for a little while.
So you’ve taken a week or so off, tried some cross training and are ready to get back on the roads for an upcoming spring race. Is it ok to start where you left off? Should long runs be incorporated right away? Speed work? It depends on your goals, prior training as well as if any injuries occurred during training. However, it’s important to scale back the volume and intensity initially to avoid the “too much, too soon” trap many runners fall into, both newbies and veterans alike. Running every other day for the first week will jump start your muscle memory and it’s ok to continue running every other day for 2-3 weeks until your legs are back in the groove. Training can then be ramped up to include weekly long runs, hill and/or speed work similar to prior training, unless of course you’re switching to a different distance in which adjusts may need to be made. If you’re not sure where to start or how much is appropriate initially, make an appointment with a physical therapist who specializes in working with runners or an experienced running coach to make a plan. Make sure you can work with these health/fitness professionals one-on-one to get an individualized program that is tailored to your goals and running history, not a cookie cutter program designed for the masses.
Moral of the story: runners need to plan their recovery just as much as they do their training. It’s a fine line between breaking down the body enough to allow proper adaptation versus causing more breakdown than the body can repair (i.e. injury). So when mapping out your next round of training, give some serious thought to recovery both during training and after the post-race beverages!
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”
~ Robert Collier