Active rest and recovery days
For starters we need to differentiate between rest and recovery days and light workout days. They are two different things.
Rest and recovery days are just that. They are days primarily designed to rest and recover. Healthy runners need rest maybe once per week, or even just once or twice a month. Obviously injuries, illness, aging, staleness, increases in distance or intensity, and overtraining can create demands for more rest.
Although rest is needed, it is still important to remain active on those days. The body, just like the mind, needs stimulation every day. Even after a grueling marathon many people find it's a good idea to move around, maybe take a walk, as early as the day after to avoid stiffening up. Even people who suffer heart attacks are encouraged to get out of bed and move around as soon as possible.
On rest and recovery days it is important to avoid doing the worst thing you can do for your body... nothing.
Examples of rest and recovery activities are walking, static stretch exercises (after a warm up and loosening up period), dynamic stretching, swimming, water running, and riding a bike. Keep in mind that increasing respiration and heart rate to a level just slightly above normal and challenging your range of motion are generally good things to do almost any time. Rest is a variable to apply in response to the feedback your body gives-more, or less, but always some.
Light workout days
Light workout days are days in which you are actually working out. The difference is that your activities are lighter, less demanding and generally performed at a lower level of intensity. Or the activities are executed at a high level of intensity for a much shorter period of time.
Light workout days are just as important as heavy workout days. They allow development to take place without breaking yourself down and acquiring overuse injuries, experiencing training plateaus, and developing a generally stale, flat, bored attitude that can come from doing the same thing day after day. In short, the light days make the heavy days possible. They should enhance and compliment your more intense workouts. They can and should be equally enjoyable. If your workouts include heavy days and light days in proper sequence, you should not need as many rest and recovery days.
An important guideline for light workout days is variety. Providing a change in the workloads to shock the system, is what is important. When changing the emphasis on workouts from heavy to light workout days there are a number of things that can be accomplished. Some training objectives that are good to consider on light workout days are flexibility, developing range of motion, improving running form, strength training, hill running, and speed interval training.
If you can, schedule the same amount of time to train on light days as heavy days. A good idea is to spend less time on the track on light days and spend the balance of your training time with strength training.
Strength training can improve running times right away. Of course there are many other benefits from strength training such as injury prevention, improved bone density, and increased range of motion that research has shown to help people well into their nineties.
Even a little strength training can convey major improvements. There is a plethora of strength training activities and exercises that can be done with no equipment at all. Weights and exercise equipment can be helpful but are not necessary.
Dynamic stretching can be accomplished by including short distances or periods of your workout executing flex runs or flex skipping exercises. (See Guilford, Running and FitNews, November, 1998.) After each exercise is completed the runner simply returns to his light jog until the heart rate has returned to normal. At that point another exercise is completed.
When you're finished, you have had a shorter run, but you have raised your heat rate and recovered number of times, and improved your range of motion not to mention your agility. This "twofer" principle is a great way to hit several training objectives at once.
Light days can also provide the opportunity to work on running form. Training to improve running form is very important for two reasons. It can help you to move more efficiently and therefore improve your times right away. Even the most advanced runner can improve his form.
A similar procedure can be followed while executing hill runs. Hill runs are great for developing strength as well as adding variety to cardiovascular training. Bleachers or stadium steps can be used if there are no hills where you live.
However, it is important to remember to concentrate on running form when running hills and stairs. Many runners will sacrifice form for what they think is speed when they are making an all-out effort. An all-out effort is not necessary when executing hill runs. Run as slowly as necessary to maintain good running form. Increased strength and, as a result, speed will come naturally.
Sprints and intervals
Sprint build ups or interval work can be incorporated into your light day running workout in a similar way. Start out with a light jog. After you warm up, gradually build up speed until you don't feel like running fast any more. Then slow down to a comfortable pace until fully recovered. Repeat this build up and recovery procedure until you have completed the amount of running or the amount of time you have planned for running that day. You can get a lot of conditioning done in a short period of time.
Recovery as a training tool
Overall, training must be approached intelligently. One of the best favors you can do for your body and your running performance is to respect the need for rest and recovery. However, that doesn't mean becoming a sloth. It is that misconception that leads some runners to avoid rest and recovery and just train-hard, harder, and hardest. That won't work in the long run.
A better approach is to understand recovery as a training tool and use it well. Remain active on rest days and use light days to address training objectives directly. This is a winning way to train.
American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit www.americanrunning.org.