Why—and How—to Take a Recovery Week
Work hard, rest hard. Here's how to maximize your downtime.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The famed fictional character Forrest Gump ran for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours with no break. “I just felt like running,” Forrest says when asked why he ran for so long. But running nearly continuously for three-plus years would not be a great idea for numerous reasons: burnout, injury, exhaustion, to name a few.
In fact, you only need to run for a handful of weeks in a row to experience those symptoms. That’s why recovery weeks are critical to build into your training, regardless of level or goal.
J’ne Day-Lucore is a former professional runner who has spent the past 30 years coaching runners and triathletes alike. To her and her athletes, recovery is an essential part of the training cycle.
“When I build a training schedule for an athlete, I consider their goals for the year and build in recovery weeks alongside their training to match the leadup to their goal,” said Day-Lucore. “But I always keep things flexible. If an athlete is feeling mentally or physically strained before their scheduled recovery week, we will adjust their recovery time to reflect what the athlete needs.”
But taking a recovery week isn’t as simple as sitting on the couch for a few days in a row. It can come with some loaded emotions, like guilt for “wasting” a week that could have been spent running, and often a want to train harder than your prescribed easy sessions for the week.
Here’s how to go about your recovery week in a way that will leave you feeling fresh and ready to get after the next training block.
RELATED: Recovery Runs Are For Taking it Easy. Are You Nailing Yours?
Signs You Need a Recovery Week
“There are all kinds of things that are triggers for being overly tired and in need of a recovery week,” says Day-Lucore. “Repeated episodes of not sleeping well, stress at work or at home, and feeling like it’s a struggle to get out the door for your sessions are all a sign something deeper is going on than a simple off day.”
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.
One of the first signs a recovery week should be taken is feeling irritable or generally unmotivated to lace up and hit the pavement.
While all of us may need a little self-coercing to get our workouts done, continued procrastination, frustration toward the session, or general dislike of the majority of workouts is something you should listen to. Running is both a physical and mental sport. When our brain resists something that usually brings us joy, it’s time to pay attention.
“The body doesn’t always tell us we need a recovery week,” said Day-Lucore. “That’s why it’s so key to listen to your brain and inner monologue. If your day-to-day life is becoming too much, that’s a sign to dial things back for at least a few days.”
Another signal to follow is how you feel physically. If you’re feeling exhausted from even the easiest of runs or an old injury is starting to rear its head, a recovery week now could prevent you from being sidelined for months in the future.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, our bodies actually grow stronger when we rest.
“Your body can only grow stronger during rest,” said Day-Lucore. “You aren’t building muscle or fitness necessarily during a workout, what you’re doing during a session is tearing down that muscle. It’s the rest period in between sessions and during recovery weeks that allows your body to rebuild that muscle and absorb the new levels of fitness you’ve worked towards.”
RELATED: Is Your Body is Trying to Tell You You’re Overtraining? Here are the Signs and Symptoms
How to Approach a Recovery Week
There are recovery days and then there are recovery weeks. Recovery days may occur weekly, but they generally do not suffice when it comes to repairing the mind and body from the wear and tear of daily training.
For many, a training cycle will consist of four weeks: three weeks of increasing intensity and/or mileage followed by one week of easy recovery. Others may opt for a three-week training cycle: two weeks of ramp followed by one week of recovery.
However you structure it, a recovery week should follow your most intense training week of the block. And it should be just that—a week to let your body rest.
“My athletes look forward to their recovery weeks because they know they’ve put in the work during the more intense week of their training block,” says Day-Lucore. “Having a recovery week on the schedule can actually motivate you to push through those tough workouts, knowing there’s a respite coming up soon.”
Running is our bread and butter, yes, but it’s key to incorporate low-impact (aka, not running) activities such as swimming or cycling into your recovery week. Coach Lucore noted that a run is “never really recovery” because of the impact it sends through your muscles and joints.
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. You can still incorporate some speedwork to keep your legs ticking, but ensure that any intervals are followed by an easy interval of the same duration.
RELATED: Rest Days are Key to Staying Healthy
Taming the Guilt Monster
Recovery weeks aren’t just about giving the body a break. They’re also about giving the mind a much-needed respite from the daily grind of cranking out workout after workout.
But because many runners are Type A, it can be challenging to back off the mileage and decrease the intensity. Feelings of guilt and even annoyance can come up.
“Your body doesn’t know the difference between athletic stress and the stress of work, family, and to-do list stress,” says Day-Lucore. “It takes discipline to take a true rest week where you aren’t working extra hours in the absence of training. But once you finally take that true recovery week, you’ll realize that slowing down a bit in sport and life for a week pays dividends.”
Instead of looking at a recovery week as time away from running, view it as time to tackle some low-stress “life tasks” such as getting laundry done, visiting a friend, or simply binge-watching that new show. And remember, the body can only build new muscle and settle into new fitness when well-rested.
One caveat to this is not overdoing the “life stuff” and leaving yourself more fatigued than when you started your recovery week. Life is all about balance, even during a lower-mileage week.
Hitting the Next Training Block
As your recovery week comes to an end, ease back into training. You may be tempted to use the newfound spring in your step to secure a new personal best on a local trail, but restrain yourself (we know, it’s hard!).
“Aim for a progression to bring yourself out of a recovery week and into the next training clock,” says Day-Lucore. “You don’t want to make the week after recovery super hard and then try to hold that hard intensity for the rest of your training block.”
Thinking of the end of your recovery week more as the start of your next four- or three-week training cycle.
Start the first week post-recovery with longer, slightly more intense sessions and build each week from there. With each session, you should get you closer to the apex of the block, the final tough week, before sending you into another warranted recovery period.