The week I tweaked my hamstring I did two big workouts. It was all interval work and I was pushing hard, breathing hard and hitting paces I haven’t seen in a while. It was on the final effort of the second session, that I pumped my legs as hard as possible, hoping to end with a quick time, when the hamstring tightened and knotted.
The following day I ran a careful recovery run; the same again on the day after. The hamstring was already feeling 95% healed and offered no issues on the third day – a long Sunday run. I expected to run quicker than usual after two easy days but, while my legs didn’t feel tired, it wasn’t faster. My heart-rate barely went over 145bpm and although I had the energy, my legs just didn’t have the bounce or verve to go fast.
The next day was totally different. I went for my usual recovery run and my legs were full of power. Now I couldn’t slow down, it was the run I’d hoped to do the day before.
That’s the point of this opening: it had taken 4-6 days to recover from the workouts of the previous week. The hamstring tightening had been a sign I’d already done enough and once that recovered, it still took until the Monday for my legs to be ready to run like I’d hoped they would on the Sunday.
This is where many runners training falls apart – they push too hard, too often – they don’t let their bodies dictate the pace, particularly on their recovery or easy days. I know many runners who would have pushed hard on the Sunday and it would have delayed the recovery further.
A few years ago I became enamoured with doing 8-mile threshold runs. Start off with 15-mins of warm-up then push the pace up to the point where my breathing was on the edge of threshold and force it along for the better part of an hour. Warmdown, recover for two days then repeat the same session again later in the week. On paper, I was doing everything right. I was following the 80-20 rule, I was getting lots of recovery and so on.
For a couple of weeks, it went really well. My pace improved and I began to get faster. Then, on weeks 3 and 4 I saw no improvement. Around the same time my lower back began to tighten up. I went another week with the runs but the aches were increasing. It reached the point where they affected my day-to-day living and reluctantly I concluded I was going to have to back off the running until it subsided. So I went back to easy running and let my body dictate the pace rather than try to force things. Within two weeks everything eased up and I raced a decent 10K.
My experience is not uncommon among runners. At least in the sense that when they overdo things they start to tighten up and get aches and pains. This is the body’s reaction to trying to use muscles that haven’t recovered. It might be felt in the Achilles, it might be in the plantar, I’ve even had it in my shoulders! The only uncommon thing about my experience is that I didn’t whine and complain or put it down to bad luck or old age; I looked at my running and changed my training plan so I was able to train without pain.
This is why keeping recovery days genuinely easy is important, it gives muscles time to recover without putting extra stress in. Most runners are used to their legs aching the day after a run, they might even get some DOMS on the second and, after half and full marathons I’ve still been struggling on days three and four. They understand the need for recovery at those times because it’s obvious. But they rarely understand aches and pains in day-to-day living are general signs of needing recovery. It’s the aggregation of unrecovered muscles being called back into action too soon. Any time I have aches, pains or tightness, I know I’m going to have to back off my training. That doesn’t mean a rest day although it could. It may just be changing a workout to an easy run; it may be delaying it by a day, it may be cutting the workout down.
The moral of the story is muscles need recovery. The more effort you put in, combined with how much you do, dictates how long it’ll take to recover. It can take ten days to recover from a good speed workout. Old runner wisdom says it takes a month to recover from a marathon. While you don’t have to be perfectly fresh to train harder, you do need to listen to your body. Aches, pains and tightness that come from nowhere are always a sign that you’re pushing hard. If you continue to push hard they’ll get worse to the point where you’re forced to let them recover one way or another.