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.
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.