Train hard and recover harder: why you should take a recovery week

You might believe that the optimal strategy for training for a marathon or other target race is to hit your peak mileage and maintain it for several weeks. By doing this, you’ll make sure to get the most out of your fitness and prepare well for your target race, right? Maybe not.

It may have happened that after a period of heavy training load you start to feel exhausted from even the easiest of runs or an old injury starts to rear its head. The reason is obvious: you are not giving your body enough time to recover. At that point, continuing training and ignoring those warning signals from your body not only is counter-productive, but it may even lead you to deal with negative states such as overtraining, new injuries, or aggravating the old ones. Keeping in mind that prevention is better than cure, a recovery week is what you might need.

Train hard, recover harder, improve faster.

The author

What is a recovery week

Talking in a more scientific context, a recovery week is a planned rest week, with mileage reduced to a certain percentage of your peak mileage. Is on the word planned that your attention should focus on: recovery weeks are not done after the damage is done, but they are planned and inserted in the middle of your training cycles in order to let your body recover, adapt, and improve.

The majority of runners find it most beneficial to drop mileage to somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the highest mileage, typically varying depending upon the frequency with which down weeks are taken. As an example, if at your peak you usually run 100km a week, during a recovery week you should run between 50 and 80km.

It is important to underline that simply taking a recovery day doesn’t provide the same benefits as taking a full recovery week. Weekly recovery days are also fundamental, but they typically are insufficient for recovering the body and mind from the strain of daily training.

Why you should plan some recovery weeks

Recovery weeks are a critical part of any runner’s training regardless of age, level, or ambition. Without them, runners can become injured, burned out, anxious, under-fueled, and experience chronic fatigue.

Training is a progression, essentially a growing-waves pattern where after each block they are more fit and performing at a higher level. So the down week is a very important part of the overall training plan. It allows them to absorb the training they did during each block and prepare for even better training in the next block.

Typical performance improvement pattern

Imagine you are driving a car over a very long highway: attempting to drive from the beginning straight to the end without any pause, you may have that feeling that you are traveling fast at the beginning but you will pay later when your car will start running out of fuel or an unforeseen situation happens such a Bucata wheel. It’s very likely that if you instead take periodic breaks to refuel and do maintenance you would arrive quicker and safer to your destination.

Benefits of a recovery week

Now that we have a good understanding of why we need to take some recovery weeks, we can dive more into the details of the multiple benefits a recovery week brings to our body:

  • Injury prevention: during a workout, you’re not immediately improving strength or fitness; instead, you’re breaking down your muscles. Your body can rebuild that muscle and assimilate the higher levels of fitness you’ve fought to achieve only during the recuperation weeks and time in between workouts.
  • Avoid overtraining: when an athlete doesn’t effectively recuperate from repeated, hard exercise, overtraining syndrome develops. This condition can lead to tiredness, deteriorating performance, and even injury.
  • Recover: incorporating weeks of planned lower volume and intensity into your training leaves you restored, both physically and mentally, and prepares you to tackle tougher training in the weeks following.
  • Improve: although it may seem counterintuitive, our bodies actually grow stronger when we rest. Most athletes find the level of workouts is elevated thereafter, and that workouts are more effective and staleness is prevented.

How to schedule recovery weeks

A recovery week should come after your most demanding training week of the block, regardless of how you plan it. And it should only last a week to give your body time to rest. While athletes’ down periods occur at different intervals, most cut their distance once every three to eight weeks.

For many, a training cycle will consist of a cycle of four weeks also known as a microcycle: three weeks of increasing intensity and/or mileage followed by one week of easy recovery.  Some athletes increase their mileage gradually during their training periodization during recovery weeks to avoid overtaxing their bodies. If planning training around a four weeks microcycle, the second and third weeks of the cycle should be the most intense, and the fourth week should be used for recovery.

Example of training periodization including recovery weeks

Aim for a progression that will let you exit a recovery week and enter the following training window. You shouldn’t make the week following recovery particularly difficult and then attempt to progress from that intensity for the remainder of your training block. Consider your rest week’s conclusion as the beginning of your subsequent training cycle.

What you should (not) do during recovery weeks

During recovery weeks, it’s natural that your training routine might differ from your normal schedule. The difference is not only seen in terms of intensity but you might also experience alternative ways of training. Next, we are going to give some tips on what to do and what should be avoided while you are in your recovery phase:

  • Cross-training: It is a good idea to incorporate low-impact cross-training activities such as swimming or cycling into your recovery week. Avoid always running because of the impact it sends through your muscles and joints.
  • Pace on feel: Runs on easy days should be done on feel without looking too much at the pace. Scheduling anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour of daily, low-impact, low-intensity activity each day will keep your body moving and feeling rejuvenated without inducing further strain on it. The more shock your bones and muscles absorb, the weaker they’ll be when you try to go fast again. 
  • What to avoid: In most cases, during a typical week elite athletes run a long run and two speed workouts. On the other hand, when taking a down week, they drastically cut the long run and perform just one speed workout. To reach the complete intended decrease, they also eliminate a second run from one of their double days. Quality is maintained in some form, though, as his athletes continue to do 100m strides once or twice a week for a neuromuscular stimulus. Mileage is reduced equally over all days with a bit more taken from the long run.
Example of training schedule during a normal training week (up) and a recovery week (down)

Psychological repercussions

Since they know they put in the work during the tougher week of their training block, many athletes look forward to their rest weeks. Knowing that you have a recuperation week coming up can really spur you on to go through those challenging workouts. Recovery weeks involve more than merely resting the body. They also serve the purpose of providing the mind with a much-needed break from the monotonous daily grind of completing workout after workout. Feel free during this time to dedicate more time to other activities besides running such as your favorite hobbies or simply hanging out with your friends or family.


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