Wouldn’t it be great if we could train with our own personalized crystal ball, one that gave us a window into the future, where we could see that crucial workout---the one where there was an injury waiting to happen? Then we would know how far to push the envelope: increasing our mileage and our intensity in our pursuit of a fast time, and also, when we should back off, take some rest, make some minor changes to our training and avoid all injuries. In reality, all too often injuries come upon unsuspecting athletes suddenly and take us by surprise, derailing our training and racing plans and it is only upon hindsight that we realize where we pushed too hard.
While crystal balls are the stuff of fantasy, cultivating experience and training ‘smarts’ can help make training a smoother process, one where you learn your injury predictors and avoid mistakes, all the while running free of worry. Injury free training is a combination of having a well thought out plan and learning to train with intuition: increasing your awareness and ‘feel’ for how your body is doing. While training with a GPS watch, heartrate monitor and along a progressive training schedule is a sure bet way to get faster, nothing can replace intuitive human intelligence (AKA common sense) hen it comes to staying healthy.
Athletes often get super focussed on goals and training sessions, and in their impatience for improvement, forget about the importance of recovery. Without recovery, the body can’t heal stronger. First let’s clarify recovery: recovery is not ice baths, compression socks or protein drinks. These are all things that may aid in recovery. Recovery is the time your body needs to repair damage to your body that is caused by hard training and racing. Most of this recovery has to happen at the cellular level and also includes your endocrine and immune systems. (We’ve all seen athletes get simply run down to the point of illness at some point.)
Planning recovery is important for several reasons. First it gives you distinct parameters for your days following hard sessions or a race, allowing your body to repair and strengthen after the extreme effort, even when you are mentally ready to train hard. Recovery allows you to come back a stronger athlete and make consistent improvements. Second, when planning your racing season, taking recovery into consideration will allow you to peak and the right time. Finally, recovery is important emotionally: all athletes need down time from pursuit of goals and being psychologically engaged.
Build in recovery
Don’t wait until you are exhausted, sore, or worse - injured - to take a rest. Planning for recovery is as important as planning your pace, power and endurance progressions. Without recovery, the body cannot absorb the training load or adapt by getting stronger. Conversely, training without recovery is like training along the law of diminishing returns: the sessions get progressively slower and slower as you tire over time; your form breaks down as you compensate for tired muscles, the runs get slower as you run less efficiently and on and on. Hard and or long workouts also reduce hamstring strength and power in athletes and if recovery is not complete they must perform their next workout with diminished hamstring strength and therefore cannot perform to full potential.
Generally, every third week should be a lighter week, or a recovery week, where the volume and intensity are reduced, allowing the body to regenerate and recover. During the recovery week, where you should reduce volume by 25% or more, you can focus on easy cross training, getting massage, seeing a physiotherapist, stretching more and eating well. Many athletes who have plateaued, or are chronically injured as the result of classic overtraining without recovery, also called ‘winging it’. It can take up to a year to iron out the building weeks with the recovery weeks, bringing athletes to a sense of balance and enlightenment about how recovery aids in stronger training over time with a consistent and smart training plan.
At the weekly level, recovery days almost always naturally follow 1-2 days of intense training, depending on the type and age of athlete, distance trained for, fitness and time of year. The key here is fatigue and soreness from training. If your sessions make you sore and tired (a good thing for getting fitter and stronger) then you need recovery days after such sessions. Again, one of the key mistakes here, is backing up too many hard days, until you crash, of either exhaustion or injury pain. A well balanced week for a healthy athlete is generally made up of three-four build workouts days and either three or four recovery days.
Unplanned Recovery and Rest Days:
When you are challenging yourself to new distances, and events, you are taking your body and your mind into new discomfort territory. While planning in recovery weeks should be your priority, sometimes the mystery of the body takes over and you need to take an unplanned recovery day. Training fatigue is a natural consequence of higher volume and intensity, but it has to also be differentiated from burn out, and over training. This can often be hard to distinguish--and there is a continuum of athlete mentalities from overly conservative (pulling the plug in training whenever they feel the slightest niggle pain, or the slightest feeling of a cold coming on) to maniac (training through fatigue, injury, illness). Both extreme mentalities lead to the same road of compromised performance.
Only you can tell when you feel it's time to stop a workout, but you have to learn to be honest with yourself. Do you want to stop because you are honestly worried about getting sick or injured, or is that just an excuse that you are using with yourself, because the day isn't going the way you expected it to, and you are disappointed and frustrated. A more proactive approach is to understand that your body isn't always going to feel 100% for every workout; it is a bit mysterious at time, and especially when you are training hard, some days are just going to be a slog. Be gentle on yourself, and try to keep perspective that each day is another step in the foundation of your training, and sometimes just completing a workout is the goal and something to take pride in. Every now and again, the goals and expectations of the practice have to be adjusted to take into account the 'mystery fatigue days' as I call them; the days where you are just too fatigued to get a training effect. Sometimes you have to pull the plug, take an unplanned recovery day and go do a gentle base run or an aerobic spin on the bike.
Tips for your recovery sessions:
Run on soft surfaces, run in the woods, and run easy. Focus on form and posture, instead of speed and pace.
If you find yourself ‘building’ speed through recovery sessions, simply follow your heartrate and don’t let it climb out of Zone 2 (about 100-120 BPM for most people).
You may have to train solo. Too many people sabotage recovery by joining a club ride, or running with people who aren’t on a plan, and who are faster.
During your recovery weeks, you can still touch on speed and pace, but doing shorter maintenance intervals. Doing 6 x 1 min fast with 1 min recovery in a 45 minute run, provides the muscle memory and maintenance to carry you through to the next build phase.
Finally, if you really have trouble with recovery, reframe your perception. Recovery training sessions are as important as build sessions. They are crucial, they are smart and necessary.
Schedule massage in your recovery period and fill some of the spare time you have with stretching sessions. Concentrate of good nutrition and hydration; these are favours you do to a body that is trying hard to repair.
A recovery period is also a mental refresher. Just like the off season gives you a much needed break in your yearly training, the recovery weeks and days are short time outs in the microcycle. Recovery allows you to re set emotionally, and simply to take a break from thinking so hard about your goals. For me, some of my most enjoyable training sessions are my recovery runs where all I have to do is run easy and relaxed for an hour, just being totally in the moment, enjoying the process of running along a trail, through the forest, daydreaming topics for my next article.
Coach Lucy Smith has been helping athletes get stronger and faster for over 20 years. After a long and successfully career as a professional runner and triathlete, Lucy now competes as a master’s athlete with the simple goal of staying healthy, and devotes a lot of time to mentoring others to do the same.
Food, Nutrition, Fuel
Read the following 2 definitions of FOOD and see if you can spot the difference.
Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth. (Oxford Dictionary)
Something that people and animals eat, or plants absorb, to keep them alive. (Cambridge Dictionary)
The seemingly minor discrepancy between the definitions of Food from the two greatest wordsmiths of the English Language fits with the general confusion around what exactly is healthy, nutritious, and good for your body. Oxford uses the adjective ‘nutritious’, to describe food, while Cambridge seems to focus on anything you eat to keep you alive.
Nutrition then, is the process of taking food into the body and absorbing the nutrients in those foods. (Collins Dictionary).
Nutrition, food, and diet have all become much more complicated than they need to be. What should I eat before a workout? When should I eat before a workout? Should I drink during workouts? Will eating Vegan make me leaner, faster or feel better? Do I need to change my diet before starting my first race? Is beer bad for you? What is Paleo eating? AAAH. The world of nutrition and particularly sports nutrition has exploded over the last twenty years as more and people have taken their health seriously and become involved in physical activity for fitness and the internet has been able to deliver information that was previously reserved for elite athletes, or only found in the dusty science journals or on microfiche at the college library. Information that the top athletes in the world have used to improve and maintain strength, fitness and health is now available to anyone with an internet search engine. With our present concerns about our health and longevity there has also been an increase in the numbers and types of special diets out there, diets that are meant to increase our energy, personal power, stamina and lean mass. Here then, are some common sense nutrition basics - bearing in mind that that special diets, food intolerances and allergies are beyond the scope of this post.
Eating to Feel Well
Still the oldest and most common sense idea in the book is the idea of looking at your body as if it is a fine tuned machine similar to a sports car. The type of gas you use has a direct correlation to how well the engine runs. Looking at food as fuel, the concept is that you want to choose foods that nourish and support your body and the training you desire to do. You can also train to eat, which is also a driving force for many people: they enjoy food, fine dining and sweets, and training is one way to manage their weight and health. For performance I prefer the eating to train version, as it puts the power with you, the individual, to make healthy, informed choices about what you are putting into your body without being obsessive. Over time, the emphasis on good choices leads to overall feelings of wellbeing in training and out, and the habits stick for good, merely because you feel better and your engine runs better. And having fries and a burger one night while out with friends at the pub, isn’t going to kill you because you consistently take care of yourself.
The other aspect to nutrition is portion control: something that North American society has lost almost completely. The rise of fast food, discount shopping in bulk, and mass consumption turned bigger into better for everything, including food. Most people eat too large portions for the amount of energy they expend each day, even active people. Because of the emphasis on eating more, and eating quickly, people have forgotten how to understand when they are full and to stop eating before that point.
Simply put, you only need to eat as many calories as you burn in one day. Eat more than what you use and you gain weight over time: eat less and you gradually lose weight, especially lean muscle. You don’t even have to count calories. A healthy person can listen to their body, know when they are hungry, and can eat accordingly, stopping when they are full. However, to reset our bodies from over eating to moderate eating for health, might require a good Nutritionist and diet plan at first, in order to create the new habits.
Doing exercise is a great way to learn how to eat better. After training, you will often feel hungry, since you might not have eaten for a while and your body is looking for energy to replace the energy it just spent. Making good choices, and fuelling your body slowly and with good quality food, will teach you to listen to your hunger signals and to take care of yourself well.
Good choices: There are many resources out there for nutrition and food choice, but Nutritionists recommend choosing whole foods as much as you can. Fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain rice and pastas and bread, eggs, lean unprocessed meat like steak, chicken breast, pork and turkey. Food that is as close to its natural state as possible is the rule to follow. The less packaging, and the fewer ingredients, the better. Think a grilled fresh chicken breast, with fresh steamed broccoli and brown rice over a highly processed Pizza Pop. A bagel with peanut butter and banana is a better choice than a packaged cookie, muffin or granola bar.
The basics to eating for energy are to have a general diet that is nutritious, whole, and in line with the energy that you expend each day. I like to add that for most people, sustainability and pleasure should also be considered. Don’t obsess over the perfect diet. Eating a strict diet that restricts foods you love (unless you have a real food allergy that makes you sick) isn’t a whole lot of fun, and takes a lot of energy to plan. I like this article that looks at our relationship with food.
Fuelling to Train
For general training, there are 3 key aspects to sports nutrition: 1. eating and hydrating before workouts, 2. eating and hydrating during workouts, and 3. eating and hydrating after workouts. If you have limited time to train, you want to make the most of each session. Being nutritionally ready to perform is very important. For the scope of most training under 2 hours and for events of under 90 minutes hydration and nutrition are not as crucial to success as they are in longer endurance events like ultras and Ironman where athletes will run into depletion during the course of the event, therefore what follows is general good advice that will be a starting point for the beginner.
Eat before your workouts: You want to start workouts with energy to complete the session, but you don’t want to feel full or have stomach upset from something that you ate. Aim to consume 60-100 grams of carbohydrates between 1 and 3 hours before your workout. (I.e. one energy bar and a piece of fruit or a bagel with jam and a piece of fruit.) Keep the foods high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. Your goal over time is find the right foods and timing that work for you as you will replicate this nutrition on race day. Workout timing has to be taken into consideration. Early morning workouts require only an early breakfast taken prior to training, while evening workouts means paying attention to nutrition and timing throughout the day. If you train after work (but before supper) you may need to have a pre-training snack (fuel) about an hour before training, especially if lunch was over 4 hrs prior. Timing your lunch to fall 3 hrs before you afternoon training session is a good practice. You want to avoid skipping breakfast and lunch if you are doing afternoon training sessions. The caloric shortfall to missed meals will leave you depleted and weak in your training. During busy days at work, count backward 1-2 hours from the estimated time you will get to your after work session, and have a snack ready: banana, small sandwich with peanut butter and honey. Over time you will find what works best for you and stick with that.
Hydrate before workouts: it is proven than being dehydrated negatively affects performance. Even a 1% loss in body weight due to dehydration will slow you down, so become friend with your water bottle! Sipping on water will keep your hydration levels up, but sports drink, and even juice, contains electrolytes that are more effective at hydrating your body. 1-2 hours before a training session, ensure that you have drunk about 500ml of fluid. Drinking too much too close to a workout doesn’t give your body time enough to absorb the fluid. Fluid will either slosh around in your stomach and create cramps and a full feeling, or will hamper you with bathroom breaks.
Fuelling and hydration during workouts: For sessions over 90 min or in really hot climates people will need to consume about 200-300 calories per hour for optimal energy to complete the session successfully. A sport gel like PowerBar gel has an easy to use pack of 110 calories and a blend of Carbohydrates and electrolytes that are scientifically formulated for endurance sports. One gel every 30 minutes of exercise, taken with 8-12 oz of water is recommended and proven to be beneficial to sport performance. There are many gels on the market now, in a variety of flavours. Take the time to find the one that works for you and that you like. Drink 8 oz water or an electrolyte drink every 15 minutes for the duration of the session.
Every person has a different rate at which they sweat, and there are 2 low tech (because I'm all about keeping it simple) methods of seeing if you are getting enough fluids.
1. The urine test: if your urine is barely yellow, you are well hydrated. If it is dark yellow, you are not hydrated enough.
2. Weigh yourself before and after exercise. The amount of weight lost is equal to the amount of water lost. For each pound of weight lost, you need to replace with 20oz of water.
How to Carry Liquids and Gels
Walking and running present their own problems as carrying a water bottle in your hands is cumbersome and throws you off your natural balance. There are excellent bottle carrying belts on the market now, ones with comfortable wide waist bands that hold several smaller bottles. For long runs over 90 minutes I recommend taking water with you as it will increase your enjoyment and performance of the session.
A lot of running shorts and tights have small pockets build right into them, perfect for carrying along one or two gels.
Eating Post Workout
Plan for and aim to eat within 15 minutes of completing your workout or race. The food you eat should contain some protein, be high in carbohydrates and 150-300 calories. High carbohydrate foods will replace the glycogen your muscles need in order to repair and recover from the stress they were under during your training session. Refuelling right after a session helps your body recover faster from the session so you are stronger and more ready for the next day. When you are able to train better you will improve faster and will be setting yourself up for success at your race. A common strategy is to have 200-300 calories ready to consume at the end of the session: a smoothie, banana, or small sandwich.
When I was racing full time, I saw the full spectrum of dietary habits. I saw athletes eat barely anything at all, vegetarians who were the pickiest roommates ever, and athletes who survived (not sure if they were thriving) off massive amounts of fast food and slurpees. I roomed with athletes who hated the onerous job of eating and only ate one food group and those who ate everything in sight, including any left over food on my plate. There were athletes who meticulously ate the exact same food before every race, and those that ate whatever was served them. I am obsessed with words and dictionaries more than I’m obsessed with food, and I am not a Nutritionist, but as a retired elite athlete and coach, in the end, I still approach food with common sense, encourage people to avoid fixating about the perfect diet, and to just enjoy the process of creating habits that support their goals.
I learned this the hardest way possible. I was at the World Student Games in Sheffield, England, and I was a young, enthusiastic runner, excited to be alongside my idols and role models. I was so wrapped up in the experience of the event, my first really big multisport games, that I tagged along for a training run with some of the more experienced members of the Canadian Team. So happy to be just running with the elite, I did my best to keep up during a 10 mile run at slightly faster than 6 min/mile pace. This run ended up being a strong tempo run, (probably a 4 out of 5 on the effort scale at the end of the run) and, 2 days out of my 10 000m track event, left me with nothing on race day. I will never forget the disappointment of running that race on tired legs; after only 6 laps, it was a struggle, and suffering through each of the remaining interminable 19 laps taught me 25 times over to never again throw away a race during training.
The ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted into ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts.
I believe it is really important for people to develop this skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training.
There is another quality to mindfulness, though, as it pertains to your goals, and priorities. I could argue that during my 10 mile run through the countryside outside Sheffield, in the lead up to the Student Games 10 000, I was entirely mindful. I was so mindful of my effort and my love of running that I totally forgot about my goal of running the track race in 2 evenings hence. If I had been truly mindful about what was needed of myself, as my own best coach to prepare optimally for the event, for which I had travelled across the globe, then I would have been able to run in a relaxed easy manner, for a shorter duration, and been ready.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting to lactate accumulation and you can go comfortably for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not heart rate, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do or that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data. “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what. Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
As Olympic marathoner Lorraine Moller puts it in her wonderful article about self coaching called “Becoming a Body Whisperer, “All champion runners can tune in to their bodies' signals to such a high degree that they have the ability to optimally divvy out their effort over the distance required using precise split-second decisions. They don't have the time or mind-space during a race to check their monitor data, make a cell phone call to their coach and wait for him to call back with instructions on whether to increase or decrease their pace after downloading it into a computer. Nor would they want such a clumsy system when their inner technology is so much more sophisticated, speedy and accurate. Although such a scenario is laughable, many runners proceed as if this were the case and fall apart when the race requires them to be self-reliant. By contrast, every champion athlete, almost without exception, is an expert body whisperer whose trust in their internal abilities of gauging effort, pacing and timing is unwavering”.
Spend some time training by feel alone
Training without a watch, or any technology, will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself.
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. I learned early in my career, that my heart and desire were far greater and stronger than my muscular skeletal system. While some of my peers were running 150 km/week, I rarely could hold greater than 80 before I broke down or got sick. This limited my ability to be a great marathoner and I stuck with half marathon, 10k, and 5k, and eventually added triathlon to my career - using bike mileage to boost my cardiovascular system. Some athletes can work their way up systematically and gradually and logically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume. Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume by listening to your body not blindly following your training log. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t Be a Sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘highest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. In my girls group I play a warm up game on a field called ‘Amoeba Running’, where the whole group pretends they are one amoeba. We run in a tightly packed group, close enough to touch hands and elbows, but can change form as we run so it feels loose and relaxed.
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will be keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
Writing the Running Life
For 30 years I pursued a high performance career and traveled the world. This blog melds this experience with my coaching and passion to support excellence in others.