The Do’s and Don’ts of Run, Recover, Repeat

Have you ever had a rock-star week of high mileage — one where you felt like you were flying, where the miles just casually ticked away — only to find yourself cramping, tired, grumpy and ready to eat everything in sight the next week? Welcome to the club. As it turns out, high mileage is hard. But, for most runners, what’s even harder is knowing when to take a break from running.

Sometimes, that’s what your body needs. And like weight lifters are fond of saying, you don’t get stronger from lifting weights, you get stronger when you’re recovering from lifting weights. The same applies to running. Your body makes adaptations and rebuilds on those days off, and if you’re constantly pounding yourself into the ground, you can’t expect to get faster.

So how much recovery do you need? If you’re new to running, you might need to take every other day off, and if you’re a veteran runner, you should try for one day off per week — possibly more if you’re feeling particularly sore. Above all, listen to your body. A little soreness the day after a hard or long run is fine, but if getting out of bed is agonizing, then it’s time for a day off, even if you don’t have one on the schedule. You need to be the judge. No training plan can tell you how you feel.

Now that we’ve established the need for rest, let’s delve into what rest means. Almost as important as taking the day off is taking the day off properly. Here are a few of our top tips for getting the most out of your recovery days:

  • Really, truly take the full day completely off. That doesn’t mean pick a day where you’re traveling or have a jam-packed schedule of events. This means find a day where you can actually decompress and indulge in some quality downtime.
  • Treat yo’self. Book a sports-specific massage, or use this day as a chance to shop for new running shoes, a cap or shorts.

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  • Roll out. Use a foam roller or massage ball to flush out your legs and speed up your recovery time.
  • Stretch out. This is a chance to check out that yoga class you’ve been eying — just make sure you pick a more relaxing class, and skip the hot yoga or anything that claims to be a hard workout. Save that for a strength workout, and stick to hatha or gentle yoga on your day off.
  • Check your diet. Are you getting enough high-quality protein? If you’re not getting in around 80 grams per day, you may want to consider adding some more lean proteins to your meals, especially the ones you’re eating right after a workout. The amino acids in protein will help your muscles recover faster.

If you’re truly overtrained, it might be time for a longer break from running. Overtraining symptoms include:

  • prolonged muscle soreness
  • fatigue
  • not seeing any improvements
  • getting slower despite keeping your mileage the same
  • lack of motivation to run

Taking a week completely off every few months can actually save your season, and the time away from the trails and roads can help rebuild your body and refocus your mind. Follow the tips above, like foam rolling and eating enough protein, but also use this week off to catch up on a few other things, such as:

  • Walk. Sounds obvious, but many people who regularly work out don’t actually spend a lot of time walking. So, now that you have some free time, use it to walk to complete as many errands as you can. You’ll keep your heart rate down and won’t subject your legs to a serious workout, but you’ll feel better getting some movement. You’ll also be less likely to go stir-crazy. Need an excuse to move? Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog if you don’t have one.
  • Take care of your feet. Male or female, use an off-week to get a pedicure and clean up your (probably very beat-up) feet. The foot massage alone will be worth it, and for those of you with calluses built over calluses, bruised toes or tight tendons, the time in the pedicure chair might be the best time you spend all week.
  • Dial in your training. Take this week off to spend some time on the computer or your phone setting up some training tools, like a daily heart-rate monitoring app (so you can catch signs of overtraining), a food-logging app (so you can take stock of what you’re putting in your body) and — if you don’t have one already — an app where you can log your training or get a training plan tailored for you. Take this time to hit up an app like Spotify to make some new motivational playlists, or download some new training podcasts. That way, when you’re back on your feet, you’ll be ready to get going.

After this time off, hopefully you’re feeling remotivated and ready to get back to running. Remember: That time off is just as important as the time you spend running, so don’t consider a day off or a week off an indulgence. It’s a training necessity, and you need to treat it as one. Keep that recovery day in your weekly schedule, and reap the benefits — and avoid the need for a full week, month or even year off because of overtraining and injury.

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Professionally nomadic, Molly spends most of her time living out of suitcases and chasing the best races, rides, runs, swims and whatever other outdoor adventures she can find. As a writer for Bicycling magazine, she mostly searches out the best mountain biking and cyclocrossing around the world, but trail runs are a top priority too—almost as important as writing about it all! Follow her travels and adventures on Twitter and Instagram at @mollyjhurford