After the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl I remember reporters asking Tom Brady how he planned to celebrate his win, how he managed to engineer the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, what he was thinking when Juilan Edelman made his circus catch, and a host of other questions about the game. What I don’t remember anyone asking him about was his recovery plan for the few weeks following the game, aside from maybe going to Disney World. As runners it’s easy to be excited about a big race, even about training in the anticipation of performing well or running a personal best. The recovery that comes afterward is far less inspiring. As evidenced by Tom Brady’s press conference, it’s much more exciting to revel in the glory of finishing a marathon or running a quick 5k. However, recovery after a key race is an important part of staying healthy and progressing in the next training cycle.
Proper recovery is a relative term dependent on both the athlete and the event. The marathon, for example, requires a different recovery protocol than the 5k. The recovery after a marathon is critical, perhaps more so than any other event because of the significant toll 26.2 miles racing on pavement takes on your body. After some marathons it can hurt to walk for a week or more while others you may feel great within a couple of days. The marathons where we’ve had the best training and we race intelligently are often the best performances and easiest to recover from. Those races are also most likely to leave you with the desire to keep racing in order to capitalize on the positive momentum and good fitness. After all, why wouldn’t the good results just keep coming?
Many of us have been victim to that logic, and it is often the fatal flaw that hinders the coming months of training and racing. Most of us know the logic behind having hard days and easy days. How well we adhere to it is another matter, but the basic premise is when you work hard your body needs to recover in order to grow stronger. This fundamental training theory is called super-compensation and it’s applicable over a wide range of sports.
Take weightlifting for example: most of us have lifted weights and experienced the resulting muscle soreness. If you lifted one day, came back the next day and tried to lift the same amount of weight your sore muscles wouldn’t be able to do it. The soreness is the muscles breaking down, rendering them temporarily weaker. As your body heals and you continue to lift weights with proper recovery, you build strength to a level greater than where you started. The same theory applies to distance running: when you pair rest with hard work your body builds fitness and gets stronger. However, if you don’t allow for adequate rest your body will continue to break down, and you’ll see performances taper off and decline or worse, you’ll end up injured or burnt-out.
By any standard, your body experiences significant breakdown during a marathon. That can be mitigated with proper training, but recovery is still important. For experienced marathoners who have a history of recovering quickly, I advise taking a week of no running following a marathon. Incorporating walking or swimming to gently move your legs and muscles will help facilitate recovery, but it’s best to avoid the impact stress of running.
For less experienced runners or those who are still feeling significant soreness or aches after one week, it’s best to take 10-14 days rest, but again, incorporating walks or light cross training will help the recovery process. Regardless of whether your first run is 7, 10, or 14 days after the marathon you should use the 7-10 days following your break to alternate between a short, easy run and a rest day. Then the following week move to 2 days of easy running followed by 1 rest day. After that you should be feeling back to normal and ready to resume regular training. You should avoid any hard workouts for 4 weeks after a marathon to ensure proper recovery.
Recovery Boosts Fitness
There is a misconception that with that much recovery you’ll lose the fitness you worked so hard for. The truth is you will briefly lose a little fitness, but within a few weeks of regular training you’ll be back to that level of fitness and beyond. Recovery is what allows for the super-compensation effect to occur, and whether it’s alternating hard days and easy days or hard blocks of training in preparation for a marathon with a rest block afterward, the same principle applies. Recovery is what makes us better, without it we’re never able to realize the gains of hard work.
Even if you’re not racing the marathon and are running shorter races intermittently throughout the year, taking structured rest breaks is important. Every 16-20 weeks you should plan on taking a structured break where you take 1-2 weeks of rest followed by a week of alternating a short, easy run with a rest day. In training for short races your body doesn’t experience the same acute beating it does during a marathon, but the accumulation of training has a similar effect. Taking structured rest 2-3 times a year allows for improvement from training cycle to training cycle, reduces injury risk, and helps avoid performance plateaus and burnout.
Recovery is often overlooked and under-appreciated in a culture where the answer to getting the result you desire is to almost always work harder. There is no doubt hard work is important, but if you’re working hard and you aren’t getting the results, take a hard look at your recovery routine and you might find the key to future success.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the July 2017 Issue of Running Journal