Note: To me coaching is all about stewardship, using the knowledge and experience I have gained over 40 years as a runner, and 10 years as a coach, to help others pursue their running goals. So rather than publishing a book you have to pay for, I am publishing it here on my blog, free for all (runners and coaches alike) to read and enjoy, maybe learn something from it, or potentially have it prompt you to look at something from a slightly different viewpoint. If any of those happen, mission accomplished.
In this chapter we want to talk about the “recover” phase of the Stress & Recover Principle we discussed in Chapter 2.
Our recovery between stress workouts includes far more than just if we run or not. It includes factors such as what we eat and drink and when, our sleep, our daily activity outside of running, our stretching, rolling, massage and other recovery therapies we engage in. But what runs we do does play a major factor in our recovery so let’s start there in our discussion.
I define an easy run as follows:
Easy runs are runs we do in order to promote recovery from our stress workouts while maintaining or advancing our cardiovascular fitness and our body’s adaptations to running. These runs should be kept short enough in duration and slow enough in pace that they do not significantly stress the body’s systems, while being quick enough to maintain bio-mechanical efficiency and provide cardiovascular benefit.
The duration of an easy run can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes in duration depending on the fitness level of the runner and the weekly mileage level they are accustomed to. 20 minutes represents the low end as it takes 20 minutes of sustained exercise to provide the cardiovascular, enzyme and hormone benefits we are after. 90 minutes represent the upper most limit as it even for very fit runners runs over 90 minutes become significantly draining of the energy systems of the body and begin to resemble endurance stress workouts rather than easy recovery runs.
One helpful way to determine how much you should run on an easy run day is to use what I call the “5-15 rule” which says that your daily easy run mileage on a recovery day should be between 5% and 15% of your weekly mileage. Where in that range you would fall would depend on how many recovery days you have between stress workouts. If you only have 1 recovery day between stress workout then you would be lower in the range, probably somewhere between 5-10%. If you have 2 or 3 easy days between stress workouts then you can be a little higher in the range at between 10-15% each day.
For a 50 mile a week runner this means that if they only have 1 recovery day between stress workouts they would probably run between 3-5 miles that day. But if they had 2 or 3 recovery days between stress workouts they could probably handle 6-8 miles easy each day.
Going back to the definition of an easy run, we want to be sure to run it slow enough not to significantly stress any systems of the body so we can assure we are recovering, while being quick enough to remain bio-mechanically efficient and provide some cardiovascular benefits
Given these parameters, I have come up with 3 guidelines for us to follow to judge if we are running within the correct range on our easy days to satisfy our definition. We should use at least 2 of the 3 guidelines on any given run.
Feel: our easy run pace should feel comfortable and relaxed, never pushing the pace and we should be able to easily carry on a conversation with a running partner.
Heart Rate: our easy runs should average between 65% and 75% of maximum heart rate. For example of your maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute than your average heart rate on your easy run should be between 117 (65% of 180) and 135 (75% of 180) beats per minute and you should stay somewhere in that range most of the run.
Pace: our easy run pace should roughly be between 20% and 30% slower than our lactate threshold pace. I have pace charts later on in this book to help you determine what this pace is for use based on recent race times. But basically we define lactate threshold as the pace you can hold for 60 minutes in an all out effort. So if you can run 60 minutes for a 10 mile race than your lactate threshold would be 6:00 per mile. This would put your desired easy run pace at between 7:12 (20% slower than 6:00) and 7:48 (30% slower than 6:00) per mile.
I recommend using the feel as your primary guide on these runs and then use either heart rate or pace as a secondary sanity check to make sure you in the right general ballpark.
As a coach the 3 most common errors I see runners making on their easy runs are:
- Running too fast. Competitive runners are driven individuals who want to improve, and sometimes that drive can cause them to run too fast on their easy runs. The pace does not seem physically hard to them so they can easily do it. But the end results is that it either does not allow them to adequately recover from their stress workout in the allotted time given or they need additional time to recover and so have to an extra recovery day. Often we see these runners sticking to their workout schedule and go into their next stress workout under recovered and thus not getting the full benefits of their last stress workout, and not being ready for the demands of the next one. As you get fitter your easy runs will get faster, but you don't get fitter by running your easy runs faster.
- Running too slow. A far less number of runners error on the other side of the spectrum here and run too slow on their easy runs. They very slowly jog (what I like to call ‘slogging’) their runs at a pace that is too slow to provide any significant cardiovascular benefits and at a pace in which they are bio-mechanically inefficient. They fail to meet our definition for easy runs because they are not getting the cardiovascular benefits desired and they are teaching their body bad bio-mechanical habits which can hurt their efficiency when do try and run quickly in workouts and races.
- Running too far. Even if a runner stays within the feel, heart rate and pace guidelines given they can sabotage their recovery by trying to run too far on their easy days, often in an attempt to up their mileage. If a runner pushes too far on an easy run, further than their fitness level is ready for, they will not recover sufficiently from their stress workout before their next stress workout and thus not get the full benefits from it. Increases in mileage levels on easy runs needs be kept small and gradual to allow the body to adapt and absorb the increases gradually.
Now that we have looked at the easy runs we do during our recovery phase of the Stress & Recover Principle, lets look at some other factors that play into our recovery.
Other Factors In Recovery
Our recovery starts as soon as we finish our stress workout and on quality stress workouts often this means on our cool-down jog. Finishing a quality stress workout (such as speed work or a tempo run) with an easy cool-down run can help start the recovery process by helping to remove waste products accumulated in the muscles from the workout and flush the muscles with the oxygen and nutrient rich blood they need to begin to repair themselves.
Eating & Drinking
When we eat and drink is almost as important as what we eat and drink when it comes to our recovery. There are 3 time frames we want to consider when planning our post workout nutrition.
- The first 20 minutes post workout - it is important to start the process of rehydrating and refueling the body in the first 20 minutes after a stress workout as well as after our easy runs. During this first 20 minutes our bodies will be the most receptive to and in need of hydration and fuel. Liquids such as water, recovery drinks, sport drinks, and chocolate milk and foods such as sport nutrition bars, or fruits such as bananas consumed in the first 20 minutes after a workout can help the body start to replace the fluids and electrolytes lost in the workout, and the nutrients needed to start the body’s recovery process.
- A balanced meal with within the first 2-3 hours post stress workout. The fueling we take in during the first 20 minutes will help get the recovery started but we’ll burn through that quickly so we want to be sure to get in a good balanced and substantial meal within the first 3 hours post workout but even better within the first 2 hours. Also during this first 2-3 hours we want to continue to work on rehydration to replace lost fluids from the workout.
- The other 21 hours of the day. Proper hydration and fueling is a 24 hour a day job and important to recovery. The body will need to be kept properly hydrated and fueled in order for it to recover well. If you fall short on either it will hurt or delay your recovery. The best thing to do is to establish some good everyday hydration and eat habits that you can make part of your lifestyle to help ensure you have this area covered.
The body and mind recovers best when we are sleeping. The body release certain hormones and chemicals when we sleep which help us recover. This fact makes your bed your the number one recovery tool you have. Similar to eating, establishing some good sleep habits and patterns can go a long way to making sure we get enough sleep to operate at our peak. And naps (even as short as 20 minutes) can be a great way to supplement if we don't get enough at night. An afternoon nap after a morning stress workout goes a long ways to help the recovery process.
How much activity we do on a day to day basis will affect our recovery and so should be taken into account when scheduling how much recovery we need after a workout. If we are stuck on our feet for most of the day, or in a car and unable to get out and stretch our legs regularly it can impact how quickly we recover from our workouts. Often we do not have full control over this because of job, family and other obligations, but it is something we want to consider in planning our recovery and to mitigate conflicts to the extent we can. If you have a desk job for example, you can get up once per hour and stretch your legs with a quick walk to the break room for some water. Bam - stretching the legs and hydrating - 2 birds, one stone.
We will talk about stretching in more detail in a later chapter, but keeping your muscles loose by working out any tight spots with regular stretching is important for recovery. Besides helping loosen tight areas, regular stretching can reduce soreness and also promotes blood flow to the muscles which will enhance recovery.
Rolling & Massage
The use of various rollers, massage balls or self or professional massage can be very helpful to loosen tight muscles, work out muscle soreness and promote recovery. But it is important to note this must be done in moderation. Too aggressive massages or rolling can break down the muscles fibers some and that can actually require additional recovery time rather than less recovery time. This may be desired and helpful in the case of injury but is not wanted or needed in the normal course of training. If an injury is not present keep rolling and massage to a light maintenance level to aid with recovery.
Other Recovery Therapies
Other recovery therapies can also be helpful to speed along recovery and get you ready for that next stress workout. A couple common examples include:
- Ice baths - taking an ice bath can aid the recovery process and help rejuvenate the legs. Especially in warm weather ice baths are used by many runners after stress workouts to help jump start the recovery process. Scientists still are not universally convinces of its merits, but it has been a tried and true method used by runners for decades.
- Warm Epsom salt bath - similar to ice baths warm Epsom salt baths have been used by runners for decades to help relieve tight and sore muscles, increase circulation and aid the recovery process. Many runners use ice baths during the warm weather months and warm Epsom salt baths in the colder months with good effect.
While we naturally think of and focus on our easy runs when we plan our recovery, make sure you consider the other factors discussed in this chapter to help you get the most out of your recovery and keep your training on track.