After the races we had last weekend, I wanted to spend a little bit of time on the topic of post-race recovery time. This is sometimes just an afterthought, because once we finish one race, we’re already thinking about the next one, right? The truth is, recovery time is a very important part of running training. However big your goals are this year, they should also include a big focus on how to properly recover and benefit from your races.
WHY IS POST-RACE RECOVERY IMPORTANT?
It gives your legs (and mind) time to reset and feel fresh again. It also gives you time to pay attention to any aches and pains that may not be apparent on race day or the day afterwards.
It allows time for physiological adaptations to take place, which lead to improved fitness, but which can only happen with the proper recovery time. The body functions in a very linear fashion: we train, then we adapt, then we train again.
It can be a very important means of injury prevention. In many cases whether or not you get injured depends on how much time you allow yourself in between races (in addition to foam rolling, massage and all the other recovery methods).
- It also gives you a chance to enjoy some more easy runs. You can still keep running while you’re recovering from a race, just don’t run hard!
WHAT SHOULD YOU KEEP IN MIND?
Time to recovery can vary, depending on your age and your fitness level, so you may not necessarily be able to copy what someone else is doing.
The longer the race, the more time you need to recover. It also takes longer to recover from a race than from a hard workout.
Your body repairs muscle much slower than it replaces fuel, hormones and enzymes used up or lost during exercise, even up to 2 to 3 times slower. Therefore it’s important to continually provide your muscles with the necessary building blocks (i.e. amino acids) to ensure that they recover properly. Here’s an article that talks about the optimal recovery window as well as what to consume immediately after a race or a hard workout.
- Recovery time can be active time. Rest days can include short, easy runs or even cross training (swimming, biking, yoga) at an easy intensity level. Exercise promotes circulation, which delivers oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to muscle tissue and promotes recovery.
HOW SHOULD YOU APPROACH RECOVERY TIME?
Pay close attention to your body. Even something as simple as walking up the stairs can give you a good idea of how fatigued your legs are. Keep in mind that in many cases, muscle soreness can be delayed by up to two days.
Use your resting heart rate (RHR) as a guide, especially if you’re a beginner runner. Measuring your RHR can give you a sense of how fatigued you are. Here are some helpful steps to establish a baseline for your resting heart rate and how to make decisions based on it, courtesy of Susan Paul from Runner’s World:
- Measure your RHR first thing in the morning, after awaking, but before hitting the caffeine, and record that number in your training log.
- Repeat this process at the same time each day. After recording it for several days, you will establish your baseline measurement for your normal RHR. Find your pulse by placing your first two fingers on the underside of your wrist, at the base of your thumb. Once you locate your pulse, count the number of beats for one minute, or count the beats for 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
- Your RHR stays much the same each day, give or take a few beats, so when your RHR is elevated, it's a red flag. When your RHR is elevated by as much as 5 beats, take notice and go easy. If it is elevated by 10 beats or more, it's a real warning, and it may be best to take the day off.
- Our RHR can be elevated for a variety of reasons- stress, lack of sleep, not recovered from a previous workout, an illness, over training, etc. While you may not be able to pinpoint the exact reason your heart rate is elevated, simply knowing that it is elevated provides you with valuable information. Armed with this knowledge, you can decide your next step and choose to sleep in, shorten a run, or skip the speed work. And, if you just don't feel like getting up, but your RHR is normal, suck it up and hit the road!
Great advice, Susan!
Run some easy strides 3-4 days after a road 5K or 10K or 5-6 days after a road 10-miler or half marathon. Strides are short runs where you gradually pick up momentum but never running at full speed. They can be anywhere from 50m to 100m long and can even be done on grass or on flat trails. Explore your options here to run on softer surfaces.
For proper recovery after a full marathon I suggest running only easy runs (at a conversational pace) during the first week of recovery, and generally only after 4-5 days of full rest. Start with 2-3 miles of easy running and then progress from there. Generally the second week after a marathon should also be about easy running but this is where you can start to add some strides before your workouts start to get progressively more demanding in the third week.
For trail races I would suggest even more recovery time. The uneven surface and hilly nature of trail races can be demanding on your muscles and even your lower leg joints, so your recovery time may have to be adjusted by adding a couple of days per type of distance ran (trail 5K trail vs. road 5K, trail marathon vs. road marathon, and so on).
WHAT ELSE SHOULD YOU KEEP IN MIND?
Overtraining and over racing lead to poor performances. As hard as it may be, avoid training too hard, too often or signing up for a 5K every single weekend. You can only “tap into the well” so many times before you become race or training-fatigued.
Inconsistent training leads to poor performances and can often lead to injuries. If you’ve been running 20 miles a week consistently, you shouldn’t suddenly jump to 30 just because you feel good and up to the task. Your mind may think so but your body (specifically your musculoskeletal system) responds much better to a gradual approach to mileage increase because it’s more manageable. A good rule of thumb is no more than a 5-10% increase in mileage each week, with a lower mileage recovery week (about 20% lower) every 3-4 weeks. Approach your long runs the same way, whether you run them for distance or for time.
While planning your race calendar, also take time to plan your recovery time in between races. It will pay huge dividends in the end and it can also ensure you stay healthy this year!
Run better, run smarter, run for life.
For advice on how much time off you should take after a race, find me at the next Wednesday group run, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org