Block Scheduling: Aiding Recovery By Batching Runs

This scheduling trick was a so-called happy accident. I partially did it out of necessity, and then discovered it was a sound approach with my current schedule.

My current training plan requires 5 days of running per week. Once I added in 8-10 hour workdays, the required commutes, and all the outside logistics required in-between… getting these five workouts in became rather difficult.

Add in the limited time before work to run, and a 45-60 minute morning workout that requires you be awake and ready to run by 5:00 am most days, and I realized keeping my daily morning run schedule would too often be impractical, if not a sleep-deprivation and burnout risk.

Thankfully, with the temperature in Las Vegas having finally dropped from its long Indian Summer, running after work once again became a viable option (though I certainly tried beforehand, 100 degree sunsets were a bit too tough to run in).

So I scaled back my strength and cross training, and decided that if I wanted to on a given day I could table that morning’s workout until after work. Incidentally, last Monday, I had a 5 miler scheduled that I knew would take almost an hour overall to complete. I decided not to stress myself and just run it after work, which I did without much trouble.

The following morning I woke up before 5am, felt okay, and did that day’s scheduled speedwork session without much trouble. Within 12 hours, I had completed two workouts. So even though I felt fine that day, I decided in advanced to not do Wednesday’s easy run until the evening, to allow about 36 hours for recovery from what was effectively a back to back 10 mile block of workouts.

After Wednesday’s 3 miler, I woke up before 5am Thursday (yesterday) and felt fine to run. So I did that 4 miler early that morning before going to work. My body felt fine all day, and I feel fine this morning. With no run today, I should be in good shape for Saturday’s long run.

So consider… even though I ran four times this week, all the workouts were condensed into a pair of 12 hour blocks, with big blocks of 36+ hour recovery time between them. That’s not too far removed from doing a morning workout, and then a recovery run later that day. As far as my body can tell, I feel like I basically worked out two days this week, even though I fully trained during four days.

That was not my intent, but there is substantial benefit to consciously training this way. You still get to train every day, but by timing the shorter workouts differently you can create larger blocks of recovery time.

I realize I’m not reinventing the wheel here. If you ever take a Road Runners Club of America coaching course to get L1 certified, your instructor will probably mention incidentally using this kind of workout-timing to build in extra recovery time.

But at the same time, provided you have the schedule to work out either in the morning or at night, you can consciously do it on a regular basis, helping you effectively reduce your workout stress… without having to reduce your workout frequency.

As runners age, they typically need to trade workout volume for the concept of “bang for your buck”, aka getting more value out of less-frequent workouts. They usually can’t go 100+ miles with lots of quality running every single day like a 20-30-something can.

Jonathan Savage notes that as an ultramarathoner his ideal schedule is to run 3-4 times a week, with each of those workouts being longer and more demanding than others would do.

This is consistent with the training habits of the late Ed Whitlock, who ran sub-4 hour marathons in his 80’s. He would go on mostly longer aerobic runs 3-4 days a week, with one or more days between them all.

Whether you are old or not, you can benefit from a “bang for your buck” mindset to workouts. In fact, the crux of the FIRST marathon training plan (which all ages can use) is that you don’t run more than 3 days, but each of those workouts will push and challenge you more than a typical training workout would.

However, even if you’re a marathoner or ultrarunner, you need not insist on days off between all your workouts, or long runs for every workout. You could practice the strategy I accidentally discovered in my recent training.

You could do an evening workout, followed by a morning workout, and not need to run again until the next day’s evening where you can repeat the cycle as desired. You can train 4-6 days a week, while tricking your body’s nervous system into thinking you’ve basically only run 2-3 times (despite having clearly worked your body’s muscles and glycogen stores every single day). Even with that morning workout carrying the stress of a workout that just happened 12-16 hours before, once you’re finished your body gets about 32-36 hours to reload and recover.

Plus, the blocks of workouts can total a large amount of mileage. I mentioned my two aforementioned workouts totalled about 10 miles. If you ran 6 miles in each of the workouts, that 12 total miles in about 12 hours.

Since you’re not getting a huge break (other than a night’s sleep) between the block workouts, in a way it’s kind of like doing a long challenging workout. The break does buffer the aerobic effect of that 10+ miles, but you’re still getting most of the muscle damage/repair effect of having run that distance. And you have more time to recover after that morning workout than you would have otherwise. This approach can help build running strength.

I don’t know that I’d do this all the time. Obviously in the summer Las Vegas is incredibly hot, and running in the afternoons or evenings can be mostly impractical, so it’s either mornings or bust (if I don’t just take a summer offseason from running entirely). Plus, though blocks of workouts can help build strength in training for longer races, if you’re training for a 5K or 10K it might not be as valuable to get the sorts of adaptions this kind of training can give you as it would for a marathoner or longer.

Also, bear in mind that if you want to cross train, doing so during the recovery block can cancel out the recovery effect of 36ish hours off, because you’re once again taxing your body with exercise. I’m currently not strength or cross training in-between those blocks outside of the weekend (largely because my schedule is simply too busy), and had I done so I probably would not have noticed these effects.

Tread with caution on any kind of midweek cross training if you want to experiment with this kind of schedule. Personally, I decided to do all my strength training and cross training on the weekends, when I know I otherwise have entire days off. And with cross training, I only do it if I’m not feeling worn out and want to expend some extra energy on aerobic training.

That aside, this sort of workout-batching can help you if you’re training almost every day and are struggling with recovery, and/or have a super hectic schedule that makes recovery challenging.

For example:

Monday: Evening run or speedwork
Tuesday: Morning run
Wednesday: Evening run or speedwork
Thursday: Morning run
Friday: Rest, or PM optional cross training
Saturday: Long run
Sunday: Rest, or AM cross training

When I was in high school (long, long ago), my high school was among the few to experiment with block scheduling, where instead of attending all six of your classes every day you attended three of your classes in 2 hour sessions every other day, alternating between A and B ‘blocks’ of your classes. I realize this is a similar idea, where you are alternating blocks of workouts done within close proximity with blocks of extended rest and recovery.

I did notice in high school that our block scheduling there did reduce the burnout of attending those classes, since you weren’t there every single school day. I think my similar ‘block’ approach to scheduling workouts can in turn reduce the potential burnout of a daily running schedule.

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