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Runners love to talk about their training. Epic long runs, tough hill sessions and killer track workouts are all very exciting, and they make for good stories even years after they’ve been completed. Reliving every lung-burning second of a final mile repeat or leg-numbing minute of the last 20-miler and sharing these experiences with running friends are what drive many of us to adopt new training ideas, push harder in our own workouts, and gain that last tiny bit of confidence that tells us we’re ready to achieve our own racing goals.
Recovery runs don’t get quite the same play and replay. No one really likes to talk about what happens during downtime from training following a big training run or race because most of it, quite frankly, is pretty boring.
But that doesn’t mean recovery isn’t important. In fact, even more important than the training you’re doing is how well you’re recovering from that training. As a wise coach once told me, “You are only as good as you recover.”
Why? Because recovery is when improvements happen. Yes, you need long runs, challenging workouts and steady weekly mileage to break out of your comfort zone and propel you to better race performances, but if you can’t recover from those hard efforts, they aren’t doing you much good. Without rest, not only are you denying your body time to adapt to the stress it’s under and to enable the gains you have made to take hold, but also you are sure to start your next workout under-fueled, exhausted, or possibly fighting off illness or injury.
As you rest — sleeping, relaxing on the couch on Saturday afternoon, or engaging in something slightly more active, such as your easy run days or appropriate warm-ups and cool-downs — you are reaping the benefits from your hard workouts. Stressed bones, broken-down muscle tissue, and exhausted energy systems are repairing themselves to come back stronger for your next workout and power you to a higher level of performance.
As soon as you finish a run, the recovery process is underway. Muscle fibers that have been robbed of energy and suffered micro-tears from the rigors of your workouts and long runs (this is normal, not to worry) begin the process of repairing themselves to come back stronger for your next session. Bones stressed by miles of pounding now have the opportunity to rest and recover from the load placed on them. These processes happen naturally, but they will be affected by many of the choices you make from the minute you stop running.
Running clothes are about more than just fashion. In fact, what you wear — or don’t wear — can have a significant effect on how well you recover after a race or a challenging workout.
Take a look at the clothing racks inside your local running store, or scan the pages of any running magazine. Many runners are clad head to toe in flashy, tight-fitting apparel called “compression wear.” These garments, which cover the arms, torso, or legs, are a popular choice among runners and other athletes, many of whom swear that compression wear helps them run faster. So what’s the deal with all the spandex? Will it really make you faster in your next race or workout? Probably not, as numerous scientific studies have failed to validate that claim.
What compression wear does do is aid in the all-important recovery process. Made of tight-fitting, elastic materials, compression garments deliver graduated pressure. A compression sock, for example, is tighter around the foot and ankle than it is around the calf. This helps improve circulation in the surrounding muscles and pushes blood back toward the heart. In fact, athletic compression socks were inspired by similar socks made for patients suffering from poor circulation in their lower legs.
So how does this help you recover?
In the most general sense, healing in a muscle begins when there is increased blood flow to the affected area. By wearing compression socks or tights you speed up the healing process by increasing blood flow to your legs. In addition, the increased blood flow helps to flush out metabolic waste that accumulates after a hard race or workout, such as a track session or a long run. As a result, many runners report less soreness in the days following a hard effort and contend that wearing compression products for recovery helps them bounce back more quickly than if they had gone without these garments. Surprisingly, very little lab data exist supporting the exercise recovery benefits of compression products, but the anecdotal evidence from athletes who swear by these garments after a race or a tough workout is significant.
After a long run, one of the first things I do is get out of my running shoes and socks so that I can give my feet an opportunity to breathe. Whether I decide to walk around barefoot, put on flip-flops, or slide into a pair of casual shoes probably doesn’t make much of a difference, right?
Not so fast! Your feet, perhaps more so than any other part of your body, undergo a lot of duress during a run. Whether you’re running in a boat of a stability shoe, in a minimal racing flat, or even barefoot, the small muscles of the feet and all the surrounding soft tissue take a beating every time you come into contact with the ground, supporting up to eight times your body weight with every stride.
What you decide to put on your feet after your running shoes come off can have a noticeable effect on how well your feet and lower legs recover after a run.
In the hour or so following a run, your feet are in a vulnerable state. They’ve just spent a considerable amount of time at work, and like the rest of your body, they’re tired, swollen, and could use support while recovering from their most recent effort. Unlike standard flip-flops, sandals, or slides, footwear designed specifically for recovery features sturdy, supportive footbeds underneath your arch and heel that allow your fatigued feet to recuperate while you go about your day.
Recovery footwear doesn’t just help your feet, however. Putting on a supportive pair of sandals or shoes after a run can have positive effects on the rest of your body too. Remember, when you are standing, your feet are the foundation that supports everything above it. If your feet are fatigued or weakened, they’re not going to do a good job supporting the rest of your body. Thus, supportive recovery footwear can improve your alignment and lessen stress on the shins, knees, and hips, helping legs feel fresh for your next run.
What you eat and drink before and during a training session or race is what allows you to finish without bonking, but what you consume afterward is what will allow you to recover well and perform at a high level again the next day.
There’s a short but important recovery window of 30– 60 minutes after a race or workout where you want to start rehydrating and begin the process of restocking glycogen stores and repairing damaged muscle tissue. Many sports nutritionists recommend ingesting 200–300 calories that contain a 3-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein soon after finishing. The carbohydrates are absorbed by the muscles and replenish energy stores, while the protein helps begin the process of repairing damaged muscle tissue.
Energy bars are a convenient way to get quick grab-and-go calories after a hard effort. If you cannot stomach solid food immediately after running, try a recovery drink instead.
Even if you were effectively able to replace fluids while running, grab a water bottle or sports drink right away and ensure that you’re rehydrating thoroughly so muscles don’t shut down or cramp. In this way, you’ll start replacing glycogen as well as fluids lost through sweat as soon as possible after finishing.
There are a variety of drinks on the market claiming to contain the ideal blend of carbohydrates and protein, but one accessible (and affordable) option is chocolate milk. Its high carbohydrate and protein content mirrors those of top nutritional supplements, which is why chocolate milk has become the go-to recovery drink for many top endurance athletes.
After getting in a few hundred calories closely following your workout or race, you’ll want to eat a full meal within 2–4 hours to fully replenish what you used to fuel your latest effort. Remember, the sooner you can rehydrate, refuel, and repair damaged muscle fibers, the sooner you can train hard again.
Recovery Weeks Throughout A Training Cycle
A sound recovery strategy is not only what you do immediately following a race or workout but also what you do in the days, weeks, and months after and between these harder efforts. While individual recovery days consist of easy running, crosstraining, or total rest in order to absorb one harder effort and prepare the body to take on the next one, a well-timed recovery week allows you to do the same thing, but on an extended scale.
With each week that you increase your overall mileage, stretch out your long run, or add more challenging workouts, you provide yourself with new or additional stimuli for improvement. You also become progressively more tired from the increased training load, and if you ignore this accumulation of fatigue, your performance will eventually start to stagnate or suffer. The likelihood of illness or injury also rises if you continue to add to your training load without periodically scaling back volume or intensity. In my experience, most runners tend to get stale, sick, or hurt after they’ve strung together too many weeks in a row—usually more than three—without reducing their overall training volume by 20–30 percent for at least seven days.
Just as you would take a day or two to absorb the benefits of a single hard workout, you should also take an extended period of recovery days to absorb a string of challenging training weeks.
I write training schedules in four-week blocks. Each of those blocks has a different training focus, whether it is increasing volume, building strength, improving speed, sharpening for a goal race, or doing some combination of these. The one trait the blocks have in common is that they all conclude with a recovery week, the aim of which is to absorb the previous three weeks of increased volume and intensity — three weeks of increased volume and intensity followed by one week of a lessened training load. Since the intensity of the runs in my beginner schedules doesn’t vary from day to day or week to week, and the increase in weekly running volume is incremental, it’s not necessary for beginners to scale back the training every fourth week. It’s more important for them to continually increase the length of the weekly long run and overall weekly volume.
The recovery week at the end of each four-week block represents a 20 to 30 percent reduction in volume from the highest weekly total achieved in the preceding three weeks. The long run also gets cut down, and most of the week’s running is performed at an easy pace. This seven-day stretch of reduced volume and intensity every fourth week is necessary for absorbing the previous three weeks’ workload while also gearing up for the next block of increased training.
Recovery Blocks Following A Training Cycle
While racing a marathon or half-marathon will definitely necessitate a recovery period of relaxed training in the days and weeks that follow, the long training cycle that culminates in that race also requires a dedicated recovery period before you begin training in earnest again for another key race.
Recovery blocks are two- to four-week periods of what I call “detraining.” The goal is to put your relationship with your training schedule on hold and allow yourself to get a little out of shape. Sounds counterproductive to achieving your future racing goals, right? I assure you it’s not. Look no further than the recovery practices employed by some of the best long-distance runners in the world.
Alberto Salazar, coach to top runners such as Olympic medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp and American marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein, has his athletes take two dedicated recovery periods per year, usually following an intense five-month cycle of training and racing. Each recovery period begins with two weeks of no running whatsoever followed by two weeks of unfocused easy running before the resumption of a structured training schedule. It’s also not uncommon for many top Kenyans to take a complete month off from running following a key race before they start training for the next big race on their calendar.
So how should you structure your recovery block following a key race? The answer is going to vary depending on the athlete and the length of the specific buildup before the key event.
As a general rule, I have my athletes take one week completely off from running for every uninterrupted 12-week block of training they completed before their key race. That’s right: no running. Zero. Does this mean a license to sit on the couch and watch TV all day? Well, you can, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it, especially if you plan on returning to training in a few weeks. Rather, think of your time off from running after a race as an “active” recovery period. While the occasional complete day off from any form of exercise is good for you, I encourage my athletes to aim for at least 30 minutes of non-running activity to keep body and mind engaged while they’re not following a strict training schedule. Cycling, swimming, and weight training are great choices, but even just walking, hiking, playing with your dog, surfing or skiing will do nicely. The key to active recovery is both mental and physical: mental in that it’s free from the stress of training and doesn’t feel like an “obligatory” workout; physical in that active recovery is low-impact activity, but enough that you break a light sweat and feel physically stimulated.
Follow your time off from running with one to two weeks of casual, every-other-day easy runs before reintroducing long runs and focused workouts into your weekly routine. For example, if you trained for 12 straight weeks leading up to your last marathon, you would take the next seven days off from running before lacing your shoes back up again every other day for two weeks of easy running.
The reasons for taking a planned break from training after a key race are as much mental as they are physical. Training is certainly a fun and exciting process, but it’s also hard work, and its cumulative effects are a grind on your mind as well as your body. Aside from letting your body repair itself from weeks and months of hard training, a planned break also gives your mind a rest from the obligatory feeling of needing to get up every morning to put in purposeful, stressful workouts. Use this planned recovery period of time off and unfocused running to rejuvenate your body and renew your enthusiasm to start chasing your next big racing goal!
This was an excerpt from, “The Official Rock ‘n’ Roll Guide Marathon and Half-Marathon Training” — a practical guide aimed at taking runners from sign-up to the finish line. Learn more at www.velopress.com.