Running, training and racing are an important part of the puzzle. But for those hoping to get fitter and faster, your rest and recovery are absolutely essential.
We runners are often so worried about everything we are doing—how often, how far, how fast—that we can sometimes forget the importance of what’s happening when we’re not doing anything.
Just as a weekly speed session and long run are a vital part of a successful training plan, so too are rest and recovery days, in which we don’t run at all, or, if we really have to, run slower and shorter than usual.
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Many are somewhat surprised to hear that the improvements we see from continued running and training don’t actually come during the hard interval repeats or the last few kilometres of a grueling long run. Instead, adaptions and improvements take place in the minutes, hours and days after the run ends.
Running, or any physical activity, is a stressful stimulus that disrupts the normal state of the body. When this occurs, the body responds in ways that return it to its natural state. Often these responses are entirely predictable and make intuitive sense. When we start running, our heart rate increases to pump more blood to the working muscles. Our breathing rate increases to take in more oxygen. As our body temperature rises, we sweat to cool it down. These are basic and natural body functions, but they are also skills that can be improved with time, and time is exactly what the body needs to adapt and improve.
Following any particularly hard effort, the body needs time to adapt and make the necessary changes to better handle the stress it previously endured. This is why rest and recovery days are optimally planned following these types of runs. How many people do you know that schedule a day off following a Sunday long run or midweek track workout? Exactly. This is precisely why after subsequent weeks and months of training, what once was felt difficult, soon becomes manageable.
It’s also important to distinguish two important types of recovery: active and passive. Passive recovery means doing nothing at all. It is the day or two off with no running, cross training and limited physical activity. On the other hand, active recovery can still involve some physical activity but often a different type or at an easier pace. Both types of recovery allow the body to rest, adapt and improve from previous stress and prepare for future efforts. Active recovery may even hasten the adaptation process by providing a low stress stimulus and add additional training volume.
If you’re running two or three days per week, you probably already take a day off in between runs. If you run four or more days however, you would be wise to consider taking your few days off and place them immediately following your harder and longer runs. Or at least run very easy on those days.
Those who continuously run and train, day after day, or do back-to-back hard efforts are at increased risk of injury, illness, burnout and over-training as they fail to allow the body the time it needs to recover and adapt to the increased physical stress of running.
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When done right, rest and recovery become an essential part of your running routine. Knowing when and why time off your feet is as important as the time on it will help you get faster, stronger and enjoy running even more.