Attention Runners: You Have the Right to Recover

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Attention Runners: You Have the Right to Recover

We, runners, have a hard time saying “no” to our training plan and workouts for the day, but sometimes, a lighter day — or even a day off — might help you run better. But how do you know when to take it slow? And perhaps more important, how can you avoid the inevitable feeling of guilt when you take an unplanned (or, for some of us, even a planned) rest week?

“Training limits are apparent when you listen within; you can push hard, but if your body pushes back, instead of forward, you have gone too far,” says sports performance consultant Traci Stanard. “If athletes want to reach pro-level status, both mental and physical recovery are part of the process. In consulting with my athletes, I approach recovery from the importance of the regrowth of cells in both the mind and the body. It is the exact same thing as studying in time blocks: The mind needs time to process the new information it has been introduced to, and the body needs time to register new mileage.”


The simplest way to tell whether or not you need a rest week is to ask yourself if you want or need one. If the answer to either is “yes,” take it easy for a few days. Often, mental fatigue is what pushes us into burnout and a ruined season, so even if your body is feeling OK, if your brain isn’t on board, give yourself a mini-reset and some time to miss running. You might even realize you need a few weeks of hikes, yoga classes, strength training and cross-training like swimming or cycling to start feeling excited about running again.


There are plenty of great methods to track your recovery, but however you track it, build it into your daily routine, don’t just start adding recovery metrics when you’re already feeling fatigued. If you’re not using a particular method, it’s too late to start when you’re feeling under the weather. An easy-to-use favorite is Under Armour’s Record-Equipped shoes, which use a daily pre-run ‘jump test’ to measure your fatigue and recovery rate, and offer recommendations. Alternatively, HRV monitoring with an app like HRV4Training simply monitors the space between your heart beats, and it can be measured for just 1 minute every morning when you wake up. Pre-build this into your routine, and you’ll quickly create a better profile of yourself so you can see in actual metrics when you’re in need of time off. (This is also great if you’re working with a coach, giving you extra intel to provide your coach.)


“The fear of missing the training lurks in our minds, so we repeat work and repeat work and loathe the stoppage of the routine. We grind ourselves down to a nub, and continue working from a diminished capacity,” says Chris McGovern, owner of Cycleution coaching. If you’ve plateaued for weeks, a few days off is actually going to make you faster. You might not be fully recovered from those hard runs, or you might be sacrificing sleep for the sake of your workouts. Take a couple days and focus on solid nutrition and an extra hour or two of sleep per night. You’ll come out of it feeling fresher, and will likely see a major improvement pretty quickly.



Some of us aren’t as good at tracking our own moods. If you haven’t noticed anything but you’re just not sure, ask your partner. He or she will likely be happy to tell you that your mood has been off lately. The same goes for friends, family and training buddies: Ask if any of them are sensing something is ‘off’ with you. Again, they’ll likely want to tell you if you’ve suddenly gotten grumpier if you give them a chance. And, of course, if your work or school performance is being affected, that can be another warning sign. Use the time off your feet to get caught up on work if you’ve been falling behind — or just to spend some time catching up with friends, going on date nights or cuddling your kiddos.  


“I believe — from my own experience coaching — that the physical rest is actually for the brain, the central nervous system,” says McGovern. “The brain runs the show. The physical or structural repair can’t happen without the message from the brain to fix it. If the brain is so frayed from protecting us from harm — its primary function — it can’t do its job.” That’s why he has racers take more breaks than they might think they need: It’s not that their muscles can’t keep going, their brains need a rest. Most coaches encourage athletes to chill out for a few days when necessary, but they can’t advise you about that if you’re not mentioning problems or feelings of burnout or fatigue. Stay honest.


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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