“So, how’s the training going?”
“Yeah ok I think. I’ve got a bit of a shin niggle which I’m managing at the moment but I think I’ll be ok to keep going. I’m really tired from training at the moment though, roll on the weekend!”
So went yet another conversation before Tuesday track last week. Tired and on the edge of injury seems to be the norm for so many marathon runners, but it really needn’t (and shouldn’t!) be that way. For today’s Marathon Monday, we’ll take a look at why taking some R&R is important in making you a better athlete, and offer some tips on getting that much needed down time from your training.
The Science of Rest
A quick diversion to the science of stress and recovery leads very quickly to Selye’s general adaptation theory. Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye suggested that whenever a biological system (you) is exposed to a stressor (exercise) it will at first be weakened (you become tired) but then adapts to become more resilient (you become fitter). In short, exercise is a stimulus which causes the body to adapt, making us fitter, stronger or faster. The key principle is that the body adapts after exposure to the stressor, not during the exposure itself. As such, recovery from a session, a week of training, or even a full mesocycle is crucial in how we adapt to the stress put on the body through that time.
The Short Term: Recovery from a training session
In a training world dominated by sport science, we tend to think of the importance of perfecting the minute detail of every session. We get upset if we miss our heart rate zone by 2 bpm, or fall 3 s short on that last 1 km rep. But if training takes 1 hr a day, then what we do for the remaining 23 hrs should surely be taken just as seriously. After you’ve finished cooling down, getting appropriate post-training nutrition is one of the most important things you can do to help recover well and maximise the benefit of a session (see last week’s blog for some top tips!). Other favourite techniques include stretching, spending some time on the foam roller (although I’m not sure anyone truly enjoys that…), compression wear, and ice baths. The scientific support for each isn’t strong, and in the case of ice baths actually shows that this technique can blunt your adaptation to training, but personal preference and what makes you feel good after a session can be just as important as an evidence base. It’s worth taking some time to refine a post-run routine which helps you recover ready to go for your next session.
Longer Term Recovery: Recovery from micro/mesocycles
Returning to the science of recovery, we can extend Selye’s model to consider a period of training. Supercompensation describes what happens across a series of training sessions: with each session, we rebound to a higher fitness level than before, and so over time fitness increases.
However, we’ll only achieve supercompensation when proper recovery is allowed. If we do not recover well, and train again before recovery is complete, the mounting stress will only lead to overtraining and a dive in performance. Here, you risk injury and illness in the medium term and sometimes even complete psychological burnout and disillusionment from the sport in the long term.
As such, it’s crucially important that when you plan your training (see Episode 1 of Marathon Monday for more advice!) you take this into account. Within a microcycle, factoring in rest and recovery days filled with either very easy running or a complete day off is vital in avoiding overtraining in a given week. What’s more, by resting in between sessions, you will be able to hit each session with a higher quality than if you trained hard more frequently, meaning you will get more bang for your buck. In this instance, it’s certainly about training smarter, not harder.
The same can be said of the bigger picture. It is important to factor in full weeks dedicated to rest and recovery. A mesocycle puts huge amounts of stress on a particular facet of your performance. The full model of stress which Selye proposed goes on to suggest that when a system is stressed continuously without rest, it will become exhausted. In training terms, this is when we’re risking injury and illness. Running too often on tired legs is a recipe for injury as your biomechanics break down, putting new stresses on bones and joints, and straining unaccustomed muscles. Similarly, high mileage with little recovery impairs your immune function exposing you to an increased risk of illness. Despite this, many athletes continue to train hard week in week out, worried that a few days off will see them lose all the gains made up to that point. While it is true to some extent that your fitness will drop after a few days off, a week or month(s) out through injury or illness will set you back even further. What’s more, by planning a few days off, you will come back to your training refreshed both physically and mentally, ready to tackle the next mesocycle head on.
To recover better in the short, medium or long term, sleep is one of the most important aspects of your life to consider. So important, in fact, that it was worthy of its own section! In an ideal world, we’d all fall asleep 15-30 min after going to bed, sleep for 8-10 hours without waking, wake up naturally and feel refreshed within 60 min. Elite athletes are so concerned with their sleep that they will often schedule in daytime naps to top up their quality down time! However, this is not an ideal world. Many of us end up sleep deprived in terms of time, quality or both, and very few people over the age 3 have time for naps during the day. This can especially be the case when training around full time work and family, with long training runs calling for an early alarm midweek before work, and weekend training sessions squeezed in before family time takes over.
Sleep is prime time for recovery. It’s a time when your body doesn’t have to deal with any major physiological challenges, and dedicate energy and nutrients to recovery and regrowth. Couple this with circadian and diurnal rhythms of hormone release, and sleeping (either at night or during daytime naps) offers a perfect physiological milieu for your muscles and bones to recover. A good nights sleep should also leave you feeling refreshed and ready to train hard the next day, meaning you’ll get even more from your upcoming session! It’s all a positive cycle when it comes to sleep.
You’ll probably need some time to recover from this post now before heading out to train! But it’s worth bearing in mind how you are recovering in the short, medium and long term, to not only maximise the rewards you reap from your hard training, but to also avoid injury and illness. If you’ve got specific questions on rest and recovery, or any of the topics covered so far in the Marathon Monday, check out our drop in sessions or get in touch with the team!