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I love this question tweeted by @KTerpeza: To go hard or not to go hard?
This topic comes up in training philosophies more times than not. How easy should you be running on your recovery days versus your long run and workout days. Many people get caught up in what I call the “in-between pace” days. These days you set out on a recovery day and find yourself running to the point where your breathing is labored, body is tired, and the pace is creeping closer to your marathon pace than is it easy pace. You felt good starting out so figured, why not? However, as you’re getting ready for your actual workout the following day, your legs are heavy, and your mind is doubting whether you feel recovered enough. It’s a vicious cycle of running too quickly on an easy day, heading into your workout under-recovered and making up for a lack luster workout by cranking out your run the following day. All you’ve achieved is cumulative fatigue without a ton of physiological benefit.
Now that you’re feeling pushed into a corner thinking, Oops, I do that on occasion, let me explain why there are days to go hard and days to go easy. Workout days are meant to stress your system, push you to uncomfortable running and prepare you for racing. On these days, you have specific paces or efforts in mind (marathon/ 10K/5K effort), and the purpose is to hit or come close to them. That night your body goes into repair mode, sending all its energy to help your muscles recover and adapt. You go to sleep that night, and the magic starts to happen. Your next run, whether it be that next day or a day later if you have a rest day, is very crucial in the recovery process. The meaning of a true recovery run is meant to flush out the junk from the previous workout and act as a gentle massage of your muscles. The pace should be conversational and comfortable. Starting the run slow and easing into the pace is also an option. If you’re running quicker in the last 10-15 minutes of the run, that’s fine as long as you’ve run easy the majority of it.
“Easier said than done.” That’s the feedback I often hear from some of my athletes and other runners who are caught in this “in-between pace” days. The best thing I can tell you about not getting faster on your easy days is it’s the specific workout and long run where your body does its growing. In fact, it’s the night of sleep afterward where you really reap the benefits, so don’t skimp on the zzz’s. It’s tempting when you meet up with a group to just latch on and get pulled along for the ride when some of them are running just 15-20 seconds faster than your normal day. These days are okay every once in a while, but try not to make a habit of it. Finding the right easy/recovery pace for you takes time and a bit of trial and error. Some good indicators that you’re doing it right would be: your workouts are improving, you feel recovered and ready to tackle the next one, and you return home from easy runs pleasantly tired, but not totally spent, looking at your couch for some reprieve. Remember: Each day of training has a certain purpose, and knowing what that is will help you understand what to do on the day and what type of effort you should put forth. Go hard when it counts, and go easy on the days your body needs it.