In the normal training cycle, there will be workouts that are longer and more intense than others. Your long run or interval workout are examples that may cause more soreness than a standard distance or tempo run. Soreness is part of running and not something that you should try to completely avoid.
As Steve Magness points out, muscle soreness from a particularly tough workout should be expected and a desired part of the training process. He notes that damage is a good thing because the body “responds by increasing our ability to deal with the stressors, thereby improving our running.” Sounds good to me.
Welcoming muscle damage and being able to run the next day is a balancing act. You need both to improve as a runner – the soreness that makes you adapt to hard workouts and the ability to run every day and put in a high volume of work.
Running when you’re sore is important for mental and physical reasons. You may not want to, but running during times of fatigue is beneficial for several reasons.
Embracing Soreness From Hard Workouts or Races
Physiologically, more running can prevent additional soreness in the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) cycle. The day after a hard workout an easy run will actually make you feel better. Running Times sums this up perfectly: “Exercise itself is analgesic, so on those days when you find your muscles sore from your last workout you will probably actually get some relief from a light recovery session.”
The post-hard workout run promotes blood flow to the legs which will aid your recovery. When you couple an easy recovery run with 15-20 minutes of dynamic flexibility exercises or a core routine, you’re increasing recovery even further. More blood flow, no impact forces, and increased mobility help your body get back to neutral.
Easy running when your muscles are sore can also help you psychologically by increasing mental toughness. When I first started running, I often skipped runs when I was sore or if the weather was bad. I learned that wasn’t helping me become a better runner, so I started getting out the door when conditions weren’t perfect. It’s helped me get faster.
Learning to run after a hard workout can help you make running an integral part of your daily routine (even when you feel like crap). Once it’s become a standard behavior, you’ll have difficulty not running.
Exceptions to the Rule
This issue isn’t completely black and white – there are going to be times when you shouldn’t run after a particularly grueling session. Let’s look at three examples:
1) After a very long race. I wouldn’t recommend running after a marathon, half-marathon, or other long race (especially for new runners). The best strategy is to use a zero impact cross training exercise like pool running or cycling to promote blood flow and recovery without the impact. Spend 15-30 minutes at an easy effort to prevent additional soreness.
2) If you made a training mistake. This often happens because you ran longer or went harder than what you your body was ready for. You could risk an injury if you head out for a run when your body needs rest. Since your aerobic system (heart, lungs, and cells) gets in shape faster than your structural system (bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles), you have to be very careful.
You can address this by doing a lot of core and strength exercises.
3) If you have trouble walking because something is that tight. If a particular muscle or tendon is very tight, your goal should be to loosen that area without further aggravating it. I don’t recommend static stretching, but instead do a mobility routine (like Cannonball) plus a strength routine (like the ITB Rehab Routine). Spend a few minutes on a foam roller and cross-train on the bike or in the pool for best results.
Most of the time, a short run is the best type of recovery. If you have time, take a nap and then use your foam roller to work out any kinks. Save the ice bath for after your recovery run (not right after your hard workout) and you’ll be well recovered in a few days.
Who takes the day off after a hard workout? Have I convinced you to run instead?