In last month’s column, we discussed the hard-easy principle, and that sometimes the best plan is to train hard two days in a row followed by two or more recovery days. Two specific situations in which back-to-back hard days can be effective are during weeks when you are racing, or when you are so busy during the Monday to Friday work week that you must get in most of your high quality training during the weekend. Or, you may have a race on Saturday, but still need to get in your long run on Sunday. Back-to-back hard days come with the danger of wiping yourself out on the first hard day. If you are dragging the next day, then the quality of your training will suffer, and you will probably not obtain the necessary training stimulus to improve your running.
The most effective order of workouts when doing back-to-back hard days is to have the shorter, more high intensity workout on the first day, followed by the longer, lower intensity workout. You need to be fresh for the high intensity training (such as intervals or a tempo run) in order to run hard enough to create a beneficial training stimulus. It is helpful to be fresh for long runs too, but by following the recommendations below, you should be able to recover quickly enough from your high intensity training to put in a solid long run the next day.
If your first hard day is a race, then the best strategy for the next day depends on the distance of the race. In races of 12 km or less, you will most likely not come close to fully depleting your glycogen stores. By correctly managing your recovery, you will be ready to handle your long run on Sunday morning. If the race is 15 km or longer, however, you will be generally fatigued and unlikely to do Sunday’s long run well enough to provide a positive training stimulus. Allow a minimum of two recovery days after races of 15 km or 10 miles, at least four recovery days after races of 20 km to 25 km, and at least 6 recovery days after races of 30 km or 20 miles.
Let’s look at strategies you can use to help you successfully do two high quality training days in a row. By following the 9 recommendations below, you will increase the benefits of back-to-back hard days, while minimizing your risk of injury or overtraining.
1. Carb up for hard day #1
Go into the first hard workout as fully topped up with carbohydrates as possible. That means making sure you get in plenty of carbs for the previous 48 hours. You should try to obtain 60-65% of your calories from carbohydrate.
2. Use a sports drink during the workout
Taking in carbs during the race or workout will reduce the amount of carbohydrate depletion incurred on hard day #1, which will reduce your recovery requirements. The fluid will help keep you hydrated, which will also help your recovery.
3. Cool down after hard day #1
After races or interval sessions, it is critical to cool down properly, including at least 10 minutes of easy running. Make time for at least 10 minutes of gentle stretching as well. The purpose of the cool-down is to help return your body to pre-exercise conditions. By cooling down, you will help your body recover more quickly for hard day #2.
4. Rehydrate completely
Dehydration reduces your blood volume and slows down your recovery. A pound of weight lost during a workout is equivalent to a pint of water. Because your body will not retain all the fluid you drink, however, you need to drink 1½ pints for each pound you lose. Replacing fluids will help remove waste products, restore your blood volume, and ensure that you recover as quickly as possible for hard day #2.
5. Replenish your carbohydrate stores ASAP
Your body replenishes your glycogen stores at a faster rate in the first 1-2 hours after exercise, so carb’s taken in soon after the race or workout are most effective for replenishment. Have some sports drink right away, and convenient carbohydrate foods such as bagels, energy bars, and bananas readily available.
6. Take a walk in the evening
A walk in the evening after a hard workout will increase the blood flow through your legs without contributing to fatigue or substantially reducing your carbohydrate stores. When you get back home, your muscles will be warmed up and gentle stretching can help prepare them for the next day’s effort. A relaxing walk and stretch can help reduce the stiffness from today’s workout so you feel better for hard day #2.
7. Boost your immune system
After high intensity running, the immune system is suppressed for several hours creating an “open window” during which you are at increased risk of infection. Taking 500 mg of vitamin C the day before, the day of, and the day after a hard workout may help. In addition, carbohydrate supplementation may prevent the dip in immune function. There is evidence that glycogen depletion is linked to immune system suppression, so by consuming carbs during, and immediately after, training you may prevent the dip in immune function and prevent the “open window.”
8. Warm-up thoroughly for hard day #2
If hard day #2 is a long run, then start out a bit slower than usual. Go for a short walk first to get your muscles moving and then do a few minutes of gentle stretching. Gradually work into the run so you reach your desired pace after a few miles. You will reduce the likelihood of struggling through the run.
9. Take at least two recovery days
By doing back-to-back hard days, you have provided a strong stimulus to improve your running performance. You have also, however, increased your risk of injury or overtraining. It is critical now to give your body time to recover and adapt to a higher level.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.