How to Improve series – part 5

In part 5, we’re looking at Recovery – why it’s important between workouts.

There’s a certain breed of runner who believes the harder they work, the faster they’ll become. They see their body as a machine to be pushed to its limits in pursuit of their goals yet they can’t understand why their race times aren’t getting faster. What they don’t understand is the value of recovery – you only improve when the body adapts to the training. Do too much and the body can’t recover enough to get you through your next workout. String together months of depletion and you eventually end up in the pit of despair known as overtraining.

“You only improve when the body adapts to the training”

You might think only the truly committed, who run and exercise every day for hours, would be prone to this but my view is it can happen to anyone, even those who aren’t running much. Take the average first-time marathoner who follows a training plan which has two or three runs in the week, maybe includes intervals or hills, and has distance runs on Sunday beginning at ten miles and gradually getting longer. Being a slower runner they begin to spend 3-4 hours out every Sunday to achieve these long training runs and gradually their enthusiasm wanes. Many is the runner I’ve heard bemoaning that they’ve “got to go out and do an eighteen mile long run this coming weekend” and how they’ve “still got the twenty mile run to come” and how they “can’t wait for their marathon training to be over”. That loss of enthusiasm and tiredness is a clear sign they’re suffering with under-recovery. They even begin to drop the other runs in the week to make sure they can do the long runs – which is a way of giving themselves extra recovery. It can happen to anyone who doesn’t value the importance of recovery and balance their training.

Elite distance runners train for up to fourteen hours per week yet professional cyclists and swimmers train for thirty to forty. This difference is down to how the training affects them. With running, each step results in forces of up to 2½x body-weight hammering the muscular-skeletal system.  Cycling and swimmers don’t have these forces tearing them down because the weight is born by the bike or water. While training for longer is key to endurance success, if an elite runner tried to do thirty hours every week they’d quickly become worn out and injured.

Yet there are ultrarunners training for many hours each week, but only because the majority is done at slow paces. Their goal is not speed, it’s huge distances. The faster you train, the more pounding your body is taking. While it’s not the only reason, sprinters barely cover any ground in training. Their sessions comprise less than five minutes’ worth of running yet take the better part of an hour to complete when warming up, warming down and breaks between exertions are included. Sprinters recognise the value of fully recovering to be able to give maximum effort on their next repetition. With distance running you’re not looking to be able to attain your top speed but you still have to respect the recovery process.

It’s said that training harder is no longer the limitation in endurance sports, it’s how to recover quicker. Growing up in the 1980s all the doping scandals of the day were athletes taking anabolic steroids. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the first big name to fall but not the last. I always thought steroids were something that directly made the muscles bigger and stronger but after watching a documentary I discovered they aren’t. What they did was speed up the recovery process to allow him to train harder and this led to his muscles getting bigger, faster and more powerful.

Tyler Hamilton, the disgraced Tour de France cyclist who was part of Lance Armstrong’s team, stated in his biography that they used steroids for the same benefit. Although as a Tour rider he wasn’t interested in getting bigger muscles, he found himself struggling on the multi-day tours as the effects of riding day after day ground him down. Eventually the team doctor offered him a pill and having taken it, Hamilton found himself feeling fresh the next day and riding strongly again. His recovery had been speeded up.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest you should be looking to acquire illegal PEDs as you train for running, only to explain the importance of recovery and how it impacts training and performance.

The best legal method of aiding recovery is to do nothing. Kenyan runners, who train twice each day, sit around between sessions doing as little as possible. They’ll just sit or lie down during the day to pass the time. Of course few ordinary runners have this approach available to them amidst their busy lives. A more achievable method is to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. Paula Radcliffe said when she was at the peak of her marathon training she needed ten hours of sleep. Early nights and getting a lie-in at the weekend are a big part of this. When I’m training hard I find the occasional afternoon or evening nap is unavoidable especially when I’ve run early in the morning!

“Ensure you get a good night’s sleep”

The conclusion you might draw when told about the importance of recovery is that it means taking days off from running and resting completely. But in this series I’ve been talking about the need to get out frequently so, as runners, we need to think about active recovery. Those days where we go out for an easy jog to get blood flowing to the muscles and provide them with nutrients for rebuilding. Sometimes people cross-train for active recovery and that’s fine, it’s not quite as effective as running because it’s hitting different muscle groups but it’s better than nothing. The closer cross-training activity mirrors running the better.

Of course the occasional rest day is fine, even necessary, to give the body extra time to adapt and refuel. If you’re training effectively and hard, taking a day off isn’t something to worry about. It’s better to be slight undertrained than under-recovered when you reach your next race.

In the final part of the “How to Improve” series I’ll show you how to bring together the four factors together for training plans.

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