Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


Many runners do not follow the basic principle of work followed by recovery to improve their running. Too many runners are still training in a monotonous routine of daily hour runs with a longer run on Sunday, or 30 minute lunch-time runs with a bit more during the weekend, week after week, month after month, and year after year. Many wonder why their running performance has reached a plateau and why their personal best times were set a decade ago. Others are caught in the cycle of continuously increasing their training load (the age-old more-is-better principle) until they break down, and seem equally surprised each time they end up at the physical therapist’s office.

To optimize your training, you need to find the ideal balance between training and recovery. Training provides the stimulus for your body to adapt, but recovery is when you allow your body to positively adapt and improve. Done right, your training provides a stimulus for your body to adapt to a higher level, which is called supercompensation. If you want to get the most out of your training and race your best, then you need to get your work/recovery ratio correct not just this week, but over the series of weeks leading up to your goal race(s), and over the course of the year. Let’s look at how to get the right balance in your training during the lead-up to a goal race and over the annual cycle.

Training Blocks

Several hard training weeks should be followed by a recovery week to allow supercompensation to occur. The stimulus for physiological adaptations in glycogen storage, hormone levels, the number and size of mitochondria, capillary density, etc results from repeated training bouts, but without sufficient recovery the hard training just wears you down. With each successive effort week you provide additional stimulus for improvement but also become progressively more fatigued, so that after a few weeks your body needs a recovery week in order to adapt positively.

Almost invariably, when runners break down in training they have violated the recommended training pattern of several weeks hard followed by a recovery week. After several hard weeks without proper recovery, some weak link breaks down and the runner misses one or more weeks of training with an injury or illness. This occurs even when you follow the hard-easy principle within each week because while an easy day or two is enough time to get your energy level back up for more hard training, it is not enough for the muscle tissue repair and adaptations required to improve to the next level.

The number of weeks of hard training before a recovery week that is right for you depends on how hard you are training, how much you have increased your training from your “typical” training level, and all the aspects of lifestyle (sleep, diet, general health) and genetics (some of us are programmed to adapt more quickly than others) that determine how well you recover. The optimal pattern for most runners seems to be two to four high-effort weeks followed by one recovery week, and the most commonly successful ratio is three to one. The table below shows a reasonable pattern for a training block consisting of three hard weeks followed by a recovery week.

Sample Training Block

Week Emphasis Training Load Number of Hard Efforts
1 Work 90 3
2 Work 100 4
3 Work 90 3
4 Recovery 60-70 0-1

There is a mental component to the recovery week as well. After three hard weeks of training, it is refreshing to be able to go out for relaxed, enjoyable runs without a purposeful effort component. By the end of your recovery week, you should be feeling good and looking forward to the next string of hard weeks. If you have not recovered after one week, you need to re-evaluate your training program.

Sometimes runners use an easy week to prepare for a race. The only problem with this pattern is the temptation to shorten the recovery by training hard at the beginning of the race week and getting right back into hard training during the days immediately following the race. To get the necessary recovery effect, the entire week leading up to the race should consist of easy running, and depending on the distance of the race, you should have a few easy days after the race as well.

Recovery Blocks

You should also build one or preferably two recovery blocks into your training over the course of the year. Ideally, recovery blocks should be inserted after you have trained seriously for, and competed successfully in, a goal race. The recovery is a well-earned reward. When training or racing do not go so well, however, is when you really need a recovery block. Without recovery blocks, I can almost guarantee you will eventually lose enthusiasm for hard training and your racing performances will become mediocre.

A recovery block can be as short as two weeks or as long as ten weeks of scheduled downtime before preparing to reach new goals. Recovery blocks do not mean that you do no running, but rather that your running should be stress-free. During a recovery block, you should avoid intervals, tempo runs, long runs and monotonous training. You may want to take part of your recovery block off entirely from running and try some other activities that you usually do not have time for. The whole idea is to rejuvenate your body and to regain a hunger for hard training and competition that will carry you through another cycle of workouts and racing.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)