An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Recovery -- the art of doing... less to not much

Something that's gotten a fair amount of buzz recently is recovery. Do we need it? How much? Is it really good?

When I started long distance running out of high school (I ran cross country, but right out of HS I decided to run a marathon, and spent the whole summer training for it), I read everything I could get my hands on about running, training, the best runners in history... This was in 1982. I read every issue of Runner's World that the local library had, cover to cover, which dated back into the mid 1970's. Every book they had. I devoured it. And every training plan I saw varied the distance and speed every day. Rest days were 3 milers. By the end of the summer, I was averaging over 70 miles a week, my long runs were approaching 22 miles, and short days were 6 miles. I didn't know why those days were so important, I just copied the plans, proportioned out the distances, and ran them like clockwork.

And because my background in high school was running the 800 meters, and dabbling in longer distances, my training pace for medium distance runs was 6:30-7:00 per mile. Yeah, I broke down after a while. Youth and ignorance and all that.

It wasn't unitl many years later that I understood the the "why's" of recovery. More than just the reloading of energy stores that was fairly well-understood from the carb deplete-and-load days of running, it's a muscular and systemic need. I came to understand this very well when I spent a few years weight training (and almost no aerobic work at all) in an attempt to gain as much muscle mass as I could (I did get up to 200 lbs -- I'm at about 165 now), thinking that once I got back to aerobic training, what fat I gained would come off rapidly. Yes, it's true that increased muscle mass will burn fat faster, but that's not my point.

In weight training, the term "hard-gainer" applies to classic ectomorphs, those for whom putting on muscle mass is difficult at best. Most competitive distance runners would fall into that category.

So what happens is this -- your body adapts to the stresses applied to it. Training is the stress. It isn't until you rest that your body actually adapts. If all you did was train and not rest, you'd very quickly find yourself deep into a hole of fatigue and injury. But without the stresses, the body doesn't adapt (and when the stresses are removed, the body adapts to the LACK of stresses -- detraining). Training allows you to run longer because your body adapts to it. If you don't allow yourself the rest, your body can't fully adapt. You ONLY get stronger when you rest, BECAUSE of the training.

For hard-gainers in weight training, the problem becomes training at a high enough intensity that it stimulates the fast-twitch muscle fibers to expand, and then allowing enough time for the adaptation to take place. In running, it's the other way around -- NOT training so intensely or progressing so quickly that you break down, and not recovering too much.

Cyclists can get away with a lot less recovery because of the nature of the movement -- concentric muscle contractions vs. eccentric. Meaning the muscle contracts while it is shortening (concentric) instead of trying to contract while it's lengthening (as the quads do in running). There is MAGNITUDES less microscopic muscular damage in concentric contractions. Recovery comes much faster. When you mix the sports up as a triathlete, not only are you needing recovery in each sport, you also need it systemically -- you can't just substitute a hard swim day as recovery from a hard run day. Eventually things like Epstien-Barr or chronic fatigue can set in. I've seen it happen, and it can end careers.

Do you need rest? Yes. That doesn't mean sitting on the couch doing nothing (though that can have its benefits as well). A yoga day, or light swimming, or a walk... Something that doesn't tax the system, apply new stresses on you.

And one other thing: stress takes many forms. And it all adds up. You could follow the same weekly training plan for years, but something like a new job, losing a job, buying a house, or losing a friend might be all the additional stress it takes to push you over the edge to overtraining, even if it's the same distances you've always done. Monitor your body closely, it'll tell you what you need to know. Listen.

Happy recovering!

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