Train smarter, NOT harder.

Most runners, even most veteran runners mess this up (me included). We run too hard too often and don’t allow for enough recovery. Some say that recovery days are more important than run days (me included).

But it’s worse than you may think! We are doing our recovery days all wrong!

Okay, just to be clear; every hard day should be followed by an easy day (recovery). Get it? Got it? Good. If you only run every-other-day, then you’re doing recovery right. But if you’re running two, three, four or more days in a row, you’re probably doing it wrong.

And here’s why...two reasons.

  1. The body needs about 48 hours to refill muscle glycogen stores, you know…the fuel for your harder runs. Any run above about 75% of your max heart rate will cause you to burn huge amounts of glycogen for energy. Anything below about 75% will burn almost exclusively FAT for energy. Your glycogen stores are very limited but your fat stores are almost endless.
  2. Every run you do breaks the body down, and every rest day builds it back up. If you run hard one day, you need an easy day to recover and rebuild. You might even need two or more days to completely recover if it was very hard day. Imagine if you ran a super hard marathon, you might need 20+ days to completely recover. Why? The hard runs cause micro-trauma in the form of tiny microscopic tears in muscle, tendons, capillaries, bones, ligaments, fascia, and more. While you may feel good enough to run, you're not fully recovered and you actually compound the micro-trauma. Too much of that and you might even get injured.

Here’s an example:

Day 1: Let’s say you go for a hard run on Monday and it felt great. It was a long run for you and you ran it fairly fast, at about a 80%-85% effort. Since tomorrow is an easy “active recovery” day you plan to go easy.

Day 2: The next morning is Tuesday and you run a "moderate" pace that's only half the distance you ran the previous day. It felt pretty easy (only about 75-80% effort). You plan to run some hills tomorrow and since you feel rested, it should go well.

Day 3: Wednesday morning comes so you go out and run the hills fairly hard (about 95% effort). It went well but not as good as you hoped. You can see where this is going, right?

Day 4: No problem, it’s Thursday... an easy day. So you go out for an easy 45 minute run at varied paces just to keep it interesting. It felt okay (about 60%-80% effort).

Day 5: Finally it’s Friday! This is usually your day off from running but you’re friends are planning a meet-up fun-run, and since yesterday was an easy/rest day, you're sure you'll be great...so you join in. But even before you get started you notice you feel sluggish. After about 10 minutes you begin to wonder if you can hold the pace. At 30 minutes you’re asking your friends if they saw the train that ran you over…you are spent! But out of honor and pride, you push through and finish the run. It wasn’t even that fast or far but you feel like crap!

"I thought I was rested!"

You may blame it on all kinds of things like the weather, last night’s dinner, the alignment of the stars, or your internet provider. But what really happened?

You guessed it. Not enough recovery…actually, no recovery at all. Here’s why. A recovery day needs to be less than your 75% recovery threshold (pretty much for the whole run). Taking the day off certainly qualifies for that but you opted for an “active recovery” day instead. An active recovery day is great IF you keep it below that threshold.

You see, Monday’s run was well above the 75% threshold, around 80%-85%. Although Tuesday was easy, it was also above that threshold at about 75-80% effort, which robbed you of the recovery day. On Wednesday you ran hills and spent most of what you had left (80%-85%). Remember, it went well but not as good as you hoped. Then, even though you ran very easy on Thursday, making it truly a rest day, you still haven’t had enough recovery to be strong on Friday. And that’s how you got hit by a train and didn’t even see it coming.

Your body has an amazing ability to adjust and compensate for demands placed on it. But when your glycogen fuel begins to run low, your body starts cutting the supply. You never completely run out, instead the flow of fuel progressively decreases to the point where you can’t sustain the pace. Plus, your body hasn't fully absorbed the strain of the hard runs (rebuilt). That’s why it “felt” like a hard run on Wednesday. But if you look at your results it wasn’t even close to your best. Obviously your body wasn't done refueling and rebuilding.

The whole point is this: RESPECT THE RECOVERY

Sure, you can run back-to-back hard days. You can even run hard every day. But the “quality” of your runs will suffer even if you don’t realize it. Since your body can’t keep up with the demand you will have marginal results from marginal quality runs.

"Most runners don't go easy enough on easy days and they don't run hard enough on hard days." - Coach Jim

So as much as you hate to run slow (and you hate it when people see you run slow), it’s essential. Also know this: for most runners, any run over 60 minutes, even if really slow, should be considered a hard day.

Take away: alternate your good quality runs (glycogen fueled) with slow EZ runs (fat fueled).

Has this ever happened to you?