Let’s face it, the recovery season that many runners find themselves in right now - or anytime after a goal race like a half marathon or marathon - gets a bad rap. It’s often viewed as the leftovers of a training season where you’ve gotten through the main course, but it’s easy to ignore what is left a few days later.
Much of this is because of common myths that athletes tell themselves, even runners who I coach. Let’s break them down four that I hear every year and debunk them.
1/ I can't run at all for several weeks
You can certainly celebrate your latest achievement and take your foot off the gas pedal if no other races are on the horizon, but it doesn't mean you have to sit on the couch streaming Netflix for weeks. In fact, lying around can lead to a loss of fitness and even the dreaded runner's blues, so sticking with a fitness routine will help you heal. Every post-race recovery plan is unique based on your race distance, your health and fitness, how are you pushed, and more.
That’s why I am a big proponent of the reverse taper when training my runners. With this you gradually introduce running back into your regimen, all while running with an open and flexible plan and letting your body be your guide. For example, for endurance races like a half marathon or longer, mark off at least three to four weeks in your calendar and label each week Recovery Week One, Recovery Week Two, and so on. This is especially important once the race soreness subsides. I’ll get into how hard you should be running each week a little later on.
2/ Who needs recovery? I run easy
When I hear this, it makes me think of somebody saying we don't need to sleep at night because we sit at work all day. For those who run a lot of races and/or do multiple races in a weekend, it is just as important to invent in a solid four to six-week recovery phase as it is for those that race less frequently.
One of my clients is a fanatic and races half marathons year round. The first thing I modified when I started to coach him was to incorporate a three-week recovery phase where he ran shorter distances two to three times per week, and I mixed up his regimen with other activities like hikes and bike rides with his kids and classes at his gym. I started with a shorter recovery season as he had a hard time with the concept, but we were able to build up from there.
Now I have him to the point where he enjoys six weeks of 'play' after his race season, doing shorter runs on trails in the autumn, those bike rides and other activities with his children. His frequency of aches and pains diminished, and his joy for running was boosted because of a little time off the merry-go-round. A solid recovery phase can rejuvenate your fitness and health and bring back your mojo if you've lost it.
3/ There is no way I can try running hard
This can be particularly true if you pushed hard in the race, if you've been struggling with aches, pains or fatigue, or if you just pushed your mileage to places it's never been before. However, you can run at harder efforts in the later phases of a recovery plan if your body is feeling strong and you're motivated to do it.
Let's visit that endurance race recovery phase again. Week one you're looking at true rest, which typically means no training the firsst day or two, then low impact activity like cycling, body mobility exercises and finally easy running later in the week if the body isn't hurting. Week two you can add more frequency to your running and focus on shorter distance and easy effort. Week three is the same of slightly more running time, but still at an easy effort. Week four is where you can start to weave in harder effort running. Head out for a fartlek or tempo run, or take a HIIT class at the gym once during the week.
I liken the recovery phase with play. The benefits far outweight the stigma, and it's a time where you can go out and push a bit harder because you're not locked into a progressive training plan. It also adds an element of freedom to your regimen, and one that can inspire you to try new things.
4/ I am going to gain lots of weight and lose all my fitness
In order to reach our goals, athletes are continually on the edge of wellness. The recovery phase restores balance in your life, your body and your mind. It is a reset that allows for healing to happen so you can push again in the future. Without it, an athlete runs the risk of mental burnout, lack of motivation, fatigue and decreased performance.
Many athletes are actually able to stabilise or lose weight in the off-season because 'the hunger' that often comes with heavy training subsides, allowing your metabolism to calm down and recalibrate to a normal fuelling cycle. The cravings are also known to take a break, reducing the chances of the common brownie habit that was created when in the peaking phases of your training season. It can be helpful to reset your fuelling schedule by keeping track with an app. A few weeks of mindful eating will allow you to reset your meals and, for some, balance your weight.
If you're still on the fence about the recovery phase, consider this. Elite athletes are known to take a full month off running to aid in optimal recovery. Their bread and butter is all about the win. Whether you want to run 12 half marathons in a year or earn a best time in a race, train like the pros and give your body a break. You'll be surprised at what happens next.