Conventional wisdom tells us that we should take at least a day or two to recover after a particularly hard effort like a workout or long run. This makes sense given that most of the body’s physical improvements happen after the run, not during.
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But there are exceptions to any rule and in this case, it’s possible that going hard on back-to-back days might actually be beneficial and provide an added fitness boost.
When you run a hard workout, you apply stress to the body that requires an adaptation. That adaptation could be more red blood cell production, more muscle mitochondria (the energy-producing “power plants” of every cell) or improved bone density. These changes don’t happen right away and certainly not while out on the run. Rather, they occur in the minutes, hours and even days after the run ends, when the body is in recovery mode. That’s why recovery is such an essential part of the process.
So why interfere or delay this process?
Just as one single workout applies a particular stress that the body must adapt too, additional workouts amplify this effect and require an even greater adaptation. That could potentially lead to even greater improvements. This is the fundamental principle behind training periodization: Apply a stress, recover and adapt. Apply greater or additional stress and you recover adapt and improve even more.
Doing two back-to-back hard efforts allows you to place a greater overall stress load on the body—much more than you could in a single workout—and thus requires an even greater and more pronounced adaptation.
But there’s a risk…
The risk, of course, is injury or overtraining. This occurs when you exceed the body’s ability to recover from the stresses placed on it from running. Without sufficient recovery, the body may lose it’s ability to “keep up” and adaptations will be negligible or non-existent. In some cases, you could even fall further behind.
How to try it:
In terms of execution, attempt back-to-back workouts only occasionally and when fully healthy. Here are a few examples of consecutive workouts that could provide an added boost to your training:
Become a mileage hog: Follow up your longest run of the week (25-32K) with a medium-long run (15-20K) the very next day. Depending on how you feel, take the next day or two completely off or else, very easy.
Combine two speed sessions: Hit the track for some intervals (E.g. 5-8 x 800m at 10K pace) one day then run a fartlek (two sets of 1-2-3 minutes at 5K pace) the next.
Become stronger: Try a hill workout (8-10 x 60 second hills) one day and a 20-30 minutes half-marathon pace tempo run the next.
Ultimately, any combination of back-to-back harder efforts, whether a workout, long run or even a race, could provide potential benefits and accelerated gains. Be sure to carefully consider how you’re feeling both during and immediately after you try this, and whatever you do, don’t push through if you’re starting to feel injured or overwhelmed.