First, to clarify: A quality workout for runners is any run with more than 5 minutes of a challenging volume of running:
- Fast or otherwise hard running
- A very long period of running
- A run with intermittent fast running (such as speed reps)
Secondly, in brief… yes, back to back quality workouts are not only okay but beneficial in some circumstances.
In fact, one demographic of runner actually practices this regularly: Interscholastic cross country runners.
Many cross country runners will run a race or a speed workout on Saturday (a quality workout), followed by their long run on Sunday (also a quality workout). They have an easy day Monday and then follow a more balanced schedule through the school week.
Now, is that healthy? Running guru Jack T Daniels will actually recommend in some of his Daniels Running Formula training plans that, during the peak phase, you do two quality workouts back to back. This is the only period in his plan that you do so. In other phases of such plans he spaces out the quality workouts as others do. In most plans you do the long run later in the week (while he is one coach whose cross country plans have you do a race or quality workout right before a long run).
So while many running minds recommend you avoid running quality workouts back to back, here is Daniels not only scheduling back to backs but in many cases putting them in the important peak phase. Are those other running minds wrong?
Well, no. Most plans might schedule more demanding regular and quality workouts, and perhaps their quality workouts require more recovery. Putting their workouts back to back may be a terrible idea. In Daniels’ case, the back to back quality workouts he schedules are not as daunting: A 3 mile cross country race and a long easy run. The 2nd workout in particular is done at a lower intensity, just for a longer than normal period.
Another training plan where back to backs are possible is IronFit. Because the rest days can be slid elsewhere in the week as needed, and because the workouts need to be done in order, it’s entirely possible that speedwork and a tempo run might be back to back.
Of course, most plans won’t dare schedule a back to back for the reasons stated. That said, they are not taboo. If schedule adjustments force the possibility, or you’re crafting your own training plan where you may need to book back to backs, there is a smart way to do it.
So here is how you should approach the possibility of scheduling a back to back:
- Obviously both days surrounding the back to back days should be easy or rest days.
- If you plans allows for it, have the two days afterward be easy days.
- Only do the back to backs on the weekend if your weekday life isn’t physically demanding outside of training. Even cross country schoolkids have the luxury of sitting throughout all their classes. If you’re running around and busy all week, doing back to backs on the weekend gives your body no time to recover, which will lead to burnout or illness. In that case, you want at least one weekend day to be an easy or rest day.
- Do the slower, less demanding quality workout as the 2nd day’s workout. For example, do your speed reps 1st, and then do a tempo run 2nd. Do the hill repeats 1st, and do the fast finish run 2nd. Your body won’t be as fresh on day 2, and it’s best not to ask top speed or peak demand of your body for that 2nd workout.
- Eat and rest well after the 1st workout. Mix in more anti-inflammatory foods like carrots, tomatoes, omega-3-rich fish. Drink plenty of water. Get to bed early. If you can’t sleep, just lay there and relax.
- When possible, do the 1st day’s workout early in the day. This offers the most recovery time before the 2nd day’s workout.
- There should be no more than one other quality workout scheduled during each back to back’s week, and that other quality workout should be 1-2 days apart from the back to backs.
- Neither back to back quality workout should on its own be a top level, killer workout. Avoid scheduling a 20 mile run or a 20×400 speedwork session as part of a back to back. Any such killer workout should be scheduled on its own surrounded by easy days. If you must book a high level workout in a back to back, reduce the volume, then add extra volume to other regular workouts during the week to help bridge the gap.
- Unless you are a cross country runner, back to backs don’t need to be every week. The only time doing back to backs every week may be fine is when one or both of the workouts are on the low end of challenging. It’s best to do back to backs no more than every couple weeks, and to space quality workouts more normally on those off-weeks.
- Once you get to the taper week(s), drop the back to backs completely. Space out your remaining quality workouts.
None of this is to say that I encourage back to back quality workouts in a training plan. Like most, I actually recommend you stick to the traditional spacing of quality workouts, with at least one easy day between each. I avoid back to backs whenever possible.
But I wanted to offer the above advice for those who either have no choice but to do back to backs, or may be interested in scheduling or trying them for some reason. There’s a healthy, productive way to go about it.