Printer Friendly

Understanding recovery.

There are two components to improving your speed and endurance. The obvious one is your training. Running, in all its training variations, is needed to improve your lactate threshold, fat-burning ability, VO2max, and a host of other factors that allow you to run faster and longer over time. However, training is only half the formula for performance improvement.

To improve, your body must recover from training and adapt to a higher level of training stress. If you understand recovery, you can optimize your training. Poor management of recovery leads to overtraining, which overwhelms your body's ability to adapt to training stress and can cause fatigue, depression, lowered immunity, burnout, and injury risk.

To optimize your training and avoid burnout find the correct balance between your training and recovery. Training provides the stimulus for your body to adapt, but recovery is when those training gains occur. Supercompensation occurs when a workout or training stimulus raises your fitness to a higher level.

Turning Genes On and Off

The process of adaptation begins with your genes. Training provides stimuli that turn specific genes on or off. When the gene responds, your training changes the rates at which your body makes and breaks down specific proteins. For example, endurance training turns on genes for the production of mitochondrial protein (where energy is produced). More endurance training leads to more mitochondria in your muscles so that you can produce more energy aerobically. Your muscles and cardiovascular system adapt over days and weeks to the cumulative effects of repeated training.

Factors Affecting Recovery Rate

Runners vary greatly in how long it takes to recover from and adapt to a workout. Your genetics determine your predisposition to this adaptation; some of us are programmed to adapt more quickly than others. Lifestyle factors such as diet, quantity and quality of sleep, general health, age (we tend to recover more slowly with age), gender (women recover more slowly because of lower testosterone levels), and various life stresses (such as work and relationships), all influence how quickly you recover from and adapt to training. This is why every training program must be unique--there are simply too many variables among runners, and even for one individual from one time in your life to another.

Experience and understanding--trial and error--teach you how much training your body can positively adapt to in a given time. In order to train effectively you must go through this self-discovery process intelligently and systematically. Determining this balance can be tricky because it is hard to isolate variables. However, depending on the intensity of your workout and the other factors related to recovery, it generally requires from two to 10 days to recover completely from a hard workout.

The training stimulus that a particular type of workout provides is very specific. The energy systems that are stimulated by a long run are not the same as those for a tempo run or a lactate threshold session. So while you may need three to five days between tempo runs and three to five days between long runs and five or more days to recover from VO2 max intervals, you won't need to have a full recovery between a long run and a tempo run. This is an important principle to understand as you plan your schedule.

The Hard/Easy Principle

The hard day/easy day training pattern follows from the physiological principle of stimulus and response-hard training provides a stimulus for your body to improve, but rest is then needed to allow your body to recover and adapt to that higher level. A recovery or easy day may consist of an easy run, a light cross-training session, or total rest. There are several good reasons to follow this principle.

* Preventing Glycogen Depletion--You can store only a limited amount of glycogen in your muscles and when you do back to back hard days you run the risk of depleting those glycogen stores, reducing your performance and increasing your need for recovery.

* Preventing Illness--High intensity training temporarily suppresses your immune system making you more vulnerable to infection for as much as 12 to 72 hours. The clear implication is to avoid another hard training session until your immune function recovers from the previous hard session or race.

* Minimizing the Effects of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness--Microscopic muscle damage occurs from eccentric muscle forces (lengthening) that occur when you are breaking or running downhill. The resulting microscopic damage causes pain and inflammation, which reaches a peak at one to two days after your hard session and as you probably know too well, can last for several days. Another hard workout before your muscles have recovered is not likely to be very productive.

Recovery Days

Recovery days should be easier than hard sessions in the volume (distance) and the intensity of training. Some recovery days need to be for total rest. Sometimes a recovery day should be for cross training. The most common mistake runners make in their training is to train too hard on recovery days. The result is that the quality of your hard days declines. Over the long term you will suffer mediocre performances, frustration, and the potential for over training. Your recovery days shouldn't impose additional training stress on your muscles or your nervous system.

Think "easy" Easier running surfaces will reduce the stress on your legs and back. Look for flat courses to avoid the intensity of uphill running and the muscle damage incurred in downhill running.

A heart monitor is a good tool to prevent you from training too hard on your recovery days. If you keep your heart rate below 75% of maximum, you'll let your body recover, thus allowing quality workouts on hard training days.


Training provides the long-term improvements in fitness that are necessary for optimum performance. But training is hard work. A moderate amount of residual fatigue is fine during training, but when a race approaches you will want to increase your recovery so that you will be optimally rested for competition. This balancing of training and optimum recovery leading up to a race is called tapering and there is no doubt that tapering effectively improves performance significantly.

How Long Should You Taper?

Research has shown that tapering effectively improves race performance by 3% to 5%. This means that a good taper can shave 5% off your finish time. When you consider that any one workout will give you less than 1% improvement in fitness, it is wise to err on the side of too long a taper rather than too short a taper. Depending on your race distance you should taper from seven days (for example, 5Ks) to three weeks (for marathons).

How Should You Taper? You need to substantially reduce your mileage while maintaining the intensity of your training. Reducing the amount you run reduces the accumulated fatigue while interspersing high intensity efforts maintains your fitness. How much you reduce your mileage depends on your current training volume and all those variables listed above. A typical pattern for a marathoner is to reduce mileage by 20% to 25% during the third week before the race; 40% during the second week; and 60% during the six days leading up to the race.

Tapering for a marathon--Marathoners can be tempted to run too much in the third week before a marathon because it still seems like a long way off. But if you work too hard during this week, you may find yourself feeling flat with too little time left for an effective taper. On the other hand, planning a steady reduction can create psychological insecurity. The more effective approach to tapering is to intersperse harder efforts within an overall reduction in mileage. A taper in which harder efforts are included every few days will leave you fit, rested, and confident for the marathon.

(Adapted from Advanced Marathoning, by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, 2001. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 237 pp. $18.95, available at a discount to The American Running Association members by calling 1-800-7762732 or visit

RELATED ARTICLE: Adequate Recovery


Successful running requires that you give attention to your recovery needs. With adequate recovery you optimize your performance, avoid overtraining and injury, and maintain your health and fitness throughout your life. Here are some recovery pointers for your time at work that can help you get the most out of your running.

* Hydration. Always keep a water bottle with you throughout your day. Commit yourself to drinking two quarts of water a day in addition to replacing water lost during training.

* Calories. Keep healthful foods at hand so that you can graze throughout the day and avoid vending machine snacks or overeating at meals.

* Posture. Watch out for work strain from poor posture at your desk. Keep your computer at eye level and close enough that you aren't jutting your head forward all day. Sit with your head, shoulders, and hips aligned and with a slight curve in your lower back. Good posture throughout your day can eliminate biomechanical woes on your run.

* Move around during the day. If you sit at a desk all day it can add strain to your lower back and hamstrings. Stand up and stretch your legs.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Running & Fitness Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:training for running
Author:Douglas, Scott
Publication:Running & FitNews
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:The mental factor.
Next Article:The Clinic.

Related Articles
Distance training by the numbers.
Rest and easy days: more important than you think.
Take a second look at treadmill running.
Train smart to maximize results.
The Clinic.
The Clinic.
Play it safe after a layoff.
Proper training pace.
You and your running.
Half-marathon training made easier.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters