If you’re preparing for any race, regardless of distance, chances are you’ll likely follow a training plan. A training plan is a framework, generally spanning 10 to 18 weeks, that gets you running consistently and helps condition your body and mind for a specific race.
Plans can differ, but high-quality training plans include recovery weeks.
A recovery week is a week of training that's easier than your regular training. It's a cycle repeats until the taper week, which is another type of recovery week.
Ellen Brenner, running coach and owner of Fleet Feet Rochester and Fleet Feet Buffalo, advocates: “If a training plan doesn’t have a recovery week, it should. Albeit it could be different depending on the person’s athletic level and their goals.”
If a runner is adding a lot of miles to their weekly running routine to meet a specific 5K or 10K personal record, recovery weeks are especially important. More often than not, experts and coaches recommend them no matter the distance.
"I find a 2:1 principle for training to recovery is best," says Steve Gonser, PT DPT, a physical therapist and founder of RunSmartOnline.com, an online resource helping runners train smarter and run faster. "This is where a runner would build their mileage for two weeks, then recover to 60 percent of their max mileage on the third week.”
This cycle repeats until the taper week, which is another type of recovery week.
But not every recovery week is the same.
Recovery weeks are great opportunities to reduce stress on the body. According to the American Psychological Association: “When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.”
As you progress in a training plan, increasing mileage and adding speed workouts and tempo runs, your body is exhibiting high stress. Muscles are tensing and breaking down, tearing as you move across the pavement, over tree roots or up mountain inclines. The force of impact stresses your joints and muscles, too. With every step, your body is being jarred. This is where recovery weeks are extremely beneficial.
Recovery weeks let the body relax and muscles repair. The weekly mileage will be less and the speed workouts lighter. However, this isn’t a pull away from running entirely. Maxx Antush, endurance running coach with Team RunRun, based in Washington State, says rather than resting completely, “We reduce the total amount of physiological and mechanical stress applied to the body to a level that we can recover from without allowing our body to begin the de-training process that occurs with taking an extended break from running.”
Recovery weeks also help the body reduce the risk of injury.
“By allowing our body to adequately recover and adapt from hard training (faced in a training plan), we are able to apply more stress and ultimately stimulate more improvements down the road,” Antush says. “Taking scheduled recovery weeks has the potential to avoid musculoskeletal injuries before they ever occur and allows your body the chance to absorb the training that you have been doing.”
Recovery weeks, to some, can be the heroes of the training plan. They usually appear at times when mileage and speed workouts might be growing in length and intensity, but mental strength might be faltering.
People often don’t realize the significant mental strain runners go through. Mental conditioning coach and owner of Inner Champion Performance Nate Wolch highlights one of the perils of too much stress on the mind: burnout.
“Burnout can become an issue for athletes who are chronically overtraining and overreaching without allowing themselves time to reset their minds and bodies,” Wolch says.
Training plans are meant to push you physically and mentally, but too much training can result in crossing into a danger zone. Burnout is real, and it has affected many athletes and derailed many training plans.
A recovery week encourages the runner to step back from a strenuous buildup cycle, reflect on what they’ve accomplished physically and mentally, and better prepare them for the mileage in the weeks ahead.
Wolch recommends using recovery weeks to check in with yourself and motivate you through envisioning and working toward smaller goals.
“In the field of sport and performance psychology, we emphasize the importance of making SMAART goals (SMAART = Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Adjustable, Realistic and Time-bound),” he says. “A recovery week is an opportunity for runners to evaluate their progress, check in with their minds and bodies and adjust the intensity and volume of their training accordingly.”
The mind is one of the most important tools in running, and without sharp mental resilience, the side effects can contribute to falling away from training plans or ultimately not meeting your goal.
By considering a recovery week as a time to collect yourself mentally and physically, you can ensure a more successful training session and ultimately enjoy crossing the finish line.
By Kristen Susienka. Kristen is a full-time book editor who started running in 2015 to become a more consistent exerciser. When she’s not working, she’s thinking of running, planning her next adventure, hanging out with her cats, or reading a good book.