Ask Pete: How Many Days Should I Recover After a Long Run?
Masters champion and coach Pete Magill explains the nuances of long run recovery, plus when you should start doing speedwork as a beginner or running returnee.
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QUESTION #1: How many days should I recover after a long run? –Pastor
It depends on the long run. And it depends on your age and fitness. Long runs at an easy pace require minimal extra recovery. Long runs that include tempo or negative splitting should be treated as hard workouts. It comes down to the amount of damage and fatigue caused by the run.
For most runners, our long run is simply an extended version of our normal distance runs. Same pace. Same terrain. Maybe 25–50% more volume. For us, this is a medium-effort run. We won’t want to do hard reps the next day, but we can certainly do a distance run. By the second day, we’re ready for a hard workout (e.g., speed reps or tempo).
For other runners, the long run is more intense. It might include anywhere from 20–60 minutes of tempo. Or it might be a negative split run, with the second half faster than the first—if that negative split is a progression, with each mile faster than the one that preceded it, then the run is harder still. A long run like this requires the same recovery as any hard workout (e.g., 2 days for young runners, 3 days or more for older runners).
Of course, really young runners—those in high school or college—sometimes follow a long run on Sunday with hard intervals on Monday. I remember those days. If you aren’t in high school or college, it’s best to keep them a memory.
Less-fit runners should either avoid long runs or limit them to slightly longer versions of normal runs. More than that is a surefire way to guarantee no-runs as you rehab on the couch.
Bottom line: You need to recover for as long as it takes to recover.
QUESTION #2: I’m starting to run again after a few years away from the sport. Do I need to build a base of slow miles before I start doing faster training? – Jay
The answer is yes and no: Yes, you need to prep your muscles, connective tissue, and energy systems with a couple/few weeks of slow miles; but No, you shouldn’t avoid all higher-intensity training, as you’ll need some of that to prepare for the running to come.
Let’s look at the “yes” part of the answer first. Each of your muscles (e.g., calves, quads, and hamstrings) is composed of three types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch, intermediate fast-twitch, and fast-twitch. When you walk/jog, jog, or run slowly, you use mostly slow-twitch. As you increase your pace or intensity (e.g., climb a hill), you add intermediate fibers to the mix. Increase your pace or intensity more, and fast-twitch joins the effort. With that background, here are four things to keep in mind when beginning a running program:
- If you haven’t run recently, all your muscle fibers are untrained for running.
- All untrained muscle fibers used during a run get damaged.
- Your body is limited in how much repair work it can do on fibers in a day or two.
- You only improve when your muscle fibers have repaired completely.
Because all your fibers are untrained, you’ll damage every fiber you use during your initial runs. That’s a lot of damage! By limiting the pace of your runs (or starting with walking or walk/jogging), you restrict the damage to a manageable percentage of slow-twitch fibers. Your body can handle that repair. And it can simultaneously install the cell-specific energy upgrades that will fuel those fibers. After a week or two, you’re ready to increase your pace and distance—recruiting a whole new batch of untrained fibers and starting the process over again. As for connective tissue, it strengthens at a slower rate than muscle, so this incremental approach to training is your best bet for staying injury-free.
Now for the “no” part of the answer. After the first couple weeks—once you’ve fortified a hefty percentage of slow-twitch fibers—you can afford a small injection of higher intensity training. Training might include strides post-run (4–6 x 50–100 meters at 85–90% max speed), bodyweight resistance training, or short surges (4–6 x 30–120 seconds at faster-than-distance pace). Do that 1–2 times per week, and you’ll be prepared for the faster runs, repetitions, and races to come.
Who asked you, anyway?
Pete’s freebee training tip: Whether you’re a beginner just starting to put in daily miles or a veteran marathoner logging your final 22-mile long run before a goal race, remember: It’s not the training you do that counts, it’s the training you recover from. Training breaks down muscle and connective tissue, and it depletes energy reserves, neurotransmitters, and hormones. During recovery, you rebuild those components to be better than they were before. So never skimp on recovery.