Running Recovery: Three Levels

After breaking the 2-mile world record last week in Paris, Jakob Ingebrigtsen was asked about his training. He had the following to say:

“One of the biggest mistakes that a lot of people do is they go too hard in training. That’s basically because of their mentality and what they’re struggling with — they don’t believe in themselves. That’s why they need to do it in training because they need to build up that confidence.”

His comment has been widely circulated in running media as it underscores both the maturity of the 22 year old as well as his self-confidence. It also highlights his understanding that most people struggle to get the balance of hard work and recovery right. Running recovery is the part of training allows an athlete to realize the gains from the hard work. Runners tend to be really good at working hard, and not so good about recovering hard.

There are 3 different ways we need to look at managing recovery within our training schedule. The first is what we’ll call micro: recovery within a single week of training. Then we’ll zoom out and look at the meso: recovery within a single training cycle. At the macro level we’ll look at how we balance recovery over multiple training cycles.

There is also the topic of different recovery modalities, things like ice baths, massage, etc. That’s a topic I’ve covered a bit in the past, and one I intend to do a deeper / updated dive into soon. But for now we’ll keep the topic focused on how we structure our training to manage recovery properly.

Running Recovery: Micro Level

The day-to-day recovery process is the most visible, and the one most people are familiar with. In addition to running too hard on workouts, this is what Jakob was getting at in that quote. Pairing rest with hard work is how we get better. The hard work pushes our body to adapt to stress in a way that makes it stronger.

However, if we fail to give space for adequate recovery then the adaptation doesn’t occur and we don’t get stronger. In fact, we’re more likely to get worse through either overtraining / over reaching or injury.

So what is the right running recovery balance? And what exactly does recovery mean?

The definition and implementation of recovery will vary for each individual. But generally, recovery can be anything from a complete rest day to a non-running workout to an easy run. As a rule of thumb, I like my personal coaching clients to take at least 1 day of rest a week. Easy running should be done at a pace where you can maintain a relatively casual conversation. If you are struggling to get a few words out a time you’re running too hard. For some people, especially with warm weather, that may include some short walk breaks during their runs.

The other firm rule I implement is to have at least 2 recovery days between hard efforts. And if your long run is over 2 hours, even if the pace is easy, that counts as a hard effort. For people training for half marathons and full marathons that means you only have 1 hard workout during the week. A 5k or 10k athlete may have 2 hard workouts, but the long run is shorter. It is very difficult to fit a big long run and 2 workouts in a week while recovering properly.

Moreover, for the longer events you’re going to be better served by replacing that extra day of intensity with a little more overall training volume. But I digress.

Running Recovery: Meso Level

The ZAP team practicing running recovery with an easy run.

In executing training we live and breath the day-to-day. But in planning training it’s important to look at how the weeks interact with each other. A big part of this is how we plan recovery within a training cycle. At ZAP we operate on the 2 weeks up / 1 week down model.

The “2 up / 1 down” model translates to 2 weeks of heavier training followed by 1 week of lighter training. Typically, the lighter week is a 15-20% reduction in training volume. To accomplish this we’ll pull back on the long run volume. And for athletes running 5 or more days a week we’ll typically include an additional rest day during the week. If you run 4 days a week or less just trim back your long run and 1-2 other runs to get to the 15-20% reduction.

The principle at work here is the same principle of adaptation in pairing hard days with easy days. We want to push the body’s capacity a bit, and then back off to allow for adaptation to occur. Including a down week into training helps athletes get to the end of a training cycle fresh and ready to run their best. It’s common to get to the end of a training block and feel tired or past your peak. This is another tool in our belt to mitigate that risk.

Level 2.5

During the down week we typically reduce the volume but not the intensity. The only exception to that is a more pronounced recovery block within a training cycle. There is an art and experience element at work in gauging when to deploy this, but it can be a powerful tool.

Generally this more pronounced recovery block will include multiple rest days, no workout, and typically no long run. So if you typically run 5-6 days a week it may be a week where you would run 3-4 days and all the runs would be short and easy. This could be a 50-75% reduction in volume, and full reduction of intensity. After that week however, you’re right back into the full swing of training.

The most common time we’ll use this type of week in training is during a long marathon buildup. If a well-trained athlete spends 16 weeks training hard for a marathon they are likely overdo it. We see this all the time. An athlete trains hard and gets 4-6 weeks out from the race and is ready to race. By the time the race comes, their best running is a few weeks behind them.

With this athlete, we’ll toss a big down week in the middle of the block. Back them way off, allow their legs to freshen up and fully absorb the 8-9 weeks of training. The big dip in training isn’t enough to lose fitness. It’s just enough to freshen the body up and be ready to tackle the last heavy lifting part of training.

This is especially useful if the athlete has a half marathon race planned 6-8 weeks out from their goal marathon. We can train hard for the half and be ready to run well. Then take a big pull back in training to recover from the race, rather than just plowing ahead with marathon training. The latter makes recovery and improvement very difficult while the former allows for the adaptation we’re aiming for.

Running Recovery: Macro Level

Finally, zooming all the way out, we need to consider how we structure recovery between training blocks. A training block is typically a 12-16 week focused training period with a goal race at the end. This is again, very individualized. But regardless of what the implementation looks like, it is critically important to stringing successful training blocks together.

Some athletes are much better suited to active recovery. This tends to be the default we have with our ZAP professional team. Active recovery means that we are maintaining some amount of easy running after big goal races. We’ll take a few rest days, but within the first 4-5 days we’re going to implement some short, easy runs every other day.

This has the benefit of maintaining some of the structural strength in our muscles and connective tissue. Maintaining that strength reduces the risk of injury as you return to full training. With complete rest, and detraining of those tissues, there is an increased risk of injury as you reintroduce training.

I like to view an active recovery block as a 3-4 week window. The first 1-2 weeks is a few days of rest followed by easy running every other day. Then the next 7-10 days is 2 days of easy running followed by 1 day of rest. Then you can transition into a more normalized training week along with building back your long run and a light mid week workout.

Other runners prefer to take 1-3 weeks completely off. This has benefits as well. Some athletes find they need the emotional break from running for a bit. It can be a great window to let nagging injuries or concerns heal. More recovery can be better at letting the body get back to it’s hormonal equilibrium, particularly if you’re coming off a very tough training block and/or race. You just have to make sure you’re utilizing that same 3-4 week ramp-in from earlier, and possibly extending it to 5-6 weeks following an extended break.

There are other considerations when looking at macro level training. The biggest one is how you build variance into your training cycles in order to maximize your long term gains. I won’t delve into that here, I’ve been plenty verbose already. However, if you’re interested in that topic you can find some thoughts on it here.

Considering all 3 (or 3.5) levels of running recovery in your training stands to improve your performance, both in the short and long term. After all, if the best middle distance runner on the planet thinks his biggest advantage is that his competition is training too hard that’s worth paying attention to.