Recovery days are a key component of any good running program.
What exactly is a recovery day? “A recovery day can be a rest day, but it can also be a day when you choose to do an activity that is much less demanding than the typical,” says Janet Hamilton, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and registered clinical exercise physiologist and owner of Running Strong in Atlanta, Georgia. By taking a day to dial back the intensity of your workout — or skip a workout altogether — you’ll give your body some much-needed time to repair, helping you grow back better and stronger.
That is, so long as you avoid these three common recovery day mistakes.
Non-running activities like yoga, swimming and strength training are great recovery day options for runners. “[These activities are] very different from running, which will allow muscles, tendons and bones that are stressed by the impact loading of running to recover while you place different loads on different muscles,” Hamilton says.
Trouble is, many runners do their chosen cross-training activities with too much intensity. And when you’re a runner who’s already training hard, swimming intense laps at the pool or going for a long bike ride as a ‘recovery day’ activity, only stresses your body even more. To see performance benefits, you have to give your body a chance to repair and recover. “Dialing it back is part of being successful [as a runner],” Hamilton says.
So, keep doing cross-training workouts on your recovery days, but be sure to watch the intensity. On an effort scale of 1–10 (1 means you’re sitting on the couch, 10 means you’re exercising at maximum effort), aim for a 3 or a 4 on your recovery days.
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One mistake many newer runners make is not varying their training load during the week. For example, they’ll do the same distance Monday through Friday, take a rest day, and then do a long run on Sunday.
A better approach would be to vary your mileage more throughout the week, making sure you follow a moderate or hard workout with a recovery workout, according to Hamilton. Think: 6 miles moderate or hard one day, followed by 3 miles easy the next, followed by 6 miles moderate or hard the next day. With this approach, you’ll get more rest and recovery days, allowing your body enough time to rebuild, which helps you maximize training-specific workouts. “Rest is part of training,” Hamilton says.
To figure out how to vary your training load, divide your weekly mileage so you have an ‘overload’ run one day, and a ‘recovery’ run — or cross-training workout or rest day — the next. Recovery runs may be 10% of your total weekly mileage, overload days 20–25%, and your weekly long run can be in the range of 33–40%, Hamilton says. For example, if you typically run 24 miles per week, make your long run 8 miles, and then divide the other 16 miles into overload and recovery runs.
Many runners assume they don’t need to eat as much on recovery days as they do on training days. However, your body still needs energy to repair — especially if you’re recovering from a long or intense training session — as well as refuel for your next workout. “Imagine if you had a house to build and all the materials for it (i.e., protein), but didn’t have the people to do the work to put it all together (i.e., carbohydrates and fat),” says Kelly Jones, RD, a board-certified sports dietitian in Philadelphia. Short yourself the energy and nutrients your body needs to repair, and you’ll ultimately compromise performance gains.
Try to maintain your regular eating schedule on recovery days, and pay special attention to protein timing. “Regular intake of protein throughout the day is crucial to optimize muscle protein repair,” Jones says. Aim to get 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day (if you’re 150 pounds you’ll need roughly 95–136 grams of protein per day), and spread out your intake evenly throughout the day so you’re getting a dose every 3–4 hours, as recommended by the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Pay attention to your hunger cues throughout the day, and keep in mind that you might not feel these cues in your stomach: “Feeling mentally exhausted, light-headed or irritable can all be signs it’s time to grab a snack or meal,” Jones says.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.