Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff


How the Workout and Recovery Process Works

Being a running coach is a lot of fun.

I get to talk with people the majority of my day about a sport I love, which you really can’t beat. What I find myself doing most often is trying to explain the basic principles of running and how the whole training schedule creation process works.

While each athlete I coach is completely unique in a myriad of ways, the same basic principles of exercise physiology always apply, regardless of speed, talent and age.

One of the most basic training principles is called the “workout and recovery process” or, as Bill Bowerman called it, the “hard/easy” principle of training. As much as I have tried, explaining how the workout and recovery process works in words (without using my hands to draw pictures in the air) is somewhat difficult. So, I’ve decided to create a presentation that illustrates, in a simple way, the backbone of all training schedules.

Head over to our YouTube channel to watch a video about the recovery process (for those visual learners). If you prefer text, here is a transcript of the video.

How the Workout and Recovery Process Works

Hi everyone, welcome to your first of many training videos that are designed to help you better understand your training and help you achieve your goals.

To help us out today, we’re going to introduce you to Joe. Joe is our resident 5k expert. He’s a young, strapping man and he is going to help us understand and explain how the workout and recovery process works.

The workout and recovery process, or simply the effort level of your runs and the timing between them, is the basis for all your training. It doesn’t matter if you’re training for the 5k or the marathon or if you’ve never run before or you’re Olympic caliber, the workout and recovery process is the foundation and guiding principle behind all training.

Let’s get started:

This graph represents a typical week of training for a 5k runner. It’s important that we take a moment here to define our axis and explain what is going on. Here in the left hand side, or more scientifically the Y axis, we have Joe’s hypothetical 5k fitness. The axis doesn’t necessarily represent a specific time, but it does indicate where Joe’s ability level or potential is at. Our X axis represents the day of the week, which is pretty simple. And finally, this dotted line represents Joe’s original level of fitness or what time he could run for a 5k at the moment. Throughout this demonstration, these axis and lines will represent the same variables.

Now that we’ve got all that straight, let’s look at what happens to your body as you perform and then recover from a hard workout.

Joe wakes up Monday morning, looks at his training schedule and sees that he has an interval workout scheduled for the day. Joe straps on his training shoes and heads out the door.

Notice that as Joe is completing the workout, his fitness is actually diminishing. This is because he is breaking down muscle fibers, building lactic acid, and depleting his glycogen stores. By the end of the day, Joe is much more tired than he started, and his ability to run a 5k has actually dropped.

After a good night’s sleep, Joe wakes up on Tuesday as his body begins to recover from the workout, and his fitness is slowly returning to its previous levels. The muscles he broke down during the workout are beginning to build back stronger than they were before and his fitness not only reaches its previous level, but he starts to improve.

By Thursday, Joe has realized the gains from his workout and he’s ready to tackle another hard workout and continue his progression. If Joe were to sit on the couch for the rest of the weekend, his fitness would slowly start to decline from inactivity and lack of stimulus.

There are a few important things to remember during this process. First, the amount of damage you do to your muscles, or as represented on this graph as the trough after the workout, is directly related to how hard the workout is for you. We’ll explain this in more depth later in this lecture, but this means that it is important that you always listen to the pace guidelines given in your training plan. Each workout in your plan is specifically designed to elicit a certain effort level given your current ability. Your coach has estimated how much effort and damage the workout will cause and has structured the plan so that your next workout won’t come until you’re recovered. If you exceed the pace or the effort level, you risk taking a longer amount of time to recover than originally intended.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, how does this translate into how your training plan is structured.

Like previously discussed, your training plan assigns you a workout that is designed to elicit a certain amount of fatigue and muscle damage. Once you’ve recovered from your previous effort, your next hard workout is assigned. However, as you’ll notice, you start that second workout in slightly better shape than you did for the first workout. By the end of the week, if you’ve completed the workouts at the right effort levels, you’ll have increased your level of fitness.

Pretty cool, right? But what happens when you don’t follow the plan and you squeeze workouts together too soon or you go harder than you were supposed to?

When Joe starts his Monday workout, he goes through exactly the same routine as he normally would. This time however, Joe decides to go for another hard run on Tuesday evening so he can fit in all his workouts for the week. You can see that he starts below his original level of fitness and only digs himself further into a hole. Joe stubbornly continues on his downward path and by the end of the week, he’s actually lost fitness instead of gaining it like he had before.

As runners, we know that things come up. Weekend plans go array or work gets in the way of getting in that scheduled tempo run. While sticking to a schedule is always the hardest part of training, it’s not a good idea to try to make up for missed runs or to squeeze in an extra workout. When a situation forces you to miss a big workout or you might have to squeeze two hard runs together without any easy days between, here are the two things you should do.

1. Talk to your coach. We try to have someone in our chat room almost every hour of the day. We eat and sleep too, but we do our best to always have someone available to help you. Maybe we’ll modify the workout. Often we’ll tell you which workout is more important and therefore the one you should choose over the other.

2. If you can’t get a hold of a coach, it’s better to run an easy day and ensure recovery than dig yourself a hole by performing too many workouts in a row. This leads to overtraining and injuries.

Ok, while that sounded bleak, so far, things have been pretty simple. But how does the training plan factor in hard workouts, medium workouts, easy days, and long runs.

First, let’s take a look back and breakdown the anatomy of a hard workout. With a hard workout, you produce a lot of muscle damage and fatigue, and it takes a long time to recover, but when you’ve fully recovered, you gain a lot of fitness.

In a medium workout, you don’t produce as much fatigue, since the effort level is easier, and it also doesn’t take quite as long to recover. In this example, you’re ready to run hard again by Tuesday afternoon. However, you also didn’t spark as large an increase in your fitness as you did during the hard workout.

So how does it all come together in the training plan? This is where the magic really happens as a coach.

First, your training plan assigns you a hard run, just like all of our previous examples. Next, your training plan will schedule you a couple of easy running days, cross training workouts, or off days to help you recover.

The total distance and type of workout you will do between hard workouts is completely dependent upon your current fitness level and ability to handle the workload. A new runner might take the day off after a workout and then have one short run between their next hard session. Meanwhile, an experienced marathon veteran might put in 8-10 miles per day between hard workouts. This is because an easy 8-10 miler for an experienced athlete is a very low effort level and it helps promote recovery.

After the training schedule assumes you’ve recovered, you’ll be scheduled to run a medium type effort or another hard workout. This enables you to capitalize on your new fitness and continue the progression. Like the easy runs between workouts, the difficulty of this next workout is dependent upon your current fitness and ability to handle the workload.

This combination of medium workouts, easy days, and hard efforts is the basic recipe of your training plan. The exact workouts, mileage, and intensity will all vary based on your ability level and your goals, but these basic principles remain the foundation of your training program.

We hope you enjoyed this tutorial and it put the basics of your training plan in perspective. We appreciate you watching. Before we leave, we’d like to give Joe a big round of applause, he had quite a few workouts.

Enjoy your training and Happy Running!

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6 Responses on “How the Workout and Recovery Process Works

  1. I beleieve that this informatin will be very helpful especially since I am 68 years ld and have just recently cmpleted my 2nd Marathon.

  2. Thank you for your insights! I was wondering — how does cross-training play until this cycle? Is a cross-trained workout seen as an easy-medium workout with relation to a hard workout?

    I’m a swimmer and a runner currently training for a marathon, and I swim 4 days a week, run 1-2 days a week, and do other workouts 1-2 days a week involving biking/erging/stairs/strength workouts/etc.


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