This is one of those things I fear saying out loud, but I have never been sidelines for more than a day or two with a running injury. I recognize that I am not normal – I have a good running posture and form, good joints, and a fast recovery. I tend to bounce back from ‘doing something stupid’ (my wife’s mantra) pretty quickly As a result I avoid giving much advice – because I am always on the edge of stupidity! So when Judie decided to use a RunKeeper 5K training plan – and quickly ended up with an injury she needed to deal with, Carly and I reminded her of something critical: recovery is training, too!
There are two terms that are used interchangeably but really mean different things: rest and recovery, with recovery having two different contexts. Let’s look at each in turn:
Rest is easy because it is exactly what it sounds like – you take it easy. And by ‘take it easy’ I mean first that you DO NOT RUN. And second, that you don’t substitute a long brisk walk or strenuous bike ride in for your run.
But do you know what you should NOT do? Plop on the couch all day! Rest days are not revisiting those teen years where you could sleep until noon and sit on the couch watching bad TV and eating cereal until figuring out at 5PM what you want to do that day.
A rest day is an opportunity to give your running muscles … a rest. A light bike ride to the local ice cream shop with the family is great. Taking the dogs for a casual walk around the neighborhood or park is great. Spending an extended period stretching … awesome.
Some of you will ask ‘but didn’t you do a 65 day ‘running streak’ of more than 5 miles per day (>450 miles total) without any rest days’? Yes I did, and yes it was stupid … but see what I said about that at the top! Now I am back to doing 5 or 6 days a week (though with work travel I have been averaging 7 – 8 workouts a week … better than bad movies on TV, I guess!).
Recovery – Injury Recovery
Recovery actually means two things – one is the obvious one where you have hurt yourself and need to take time to allow your injury to heal. We’ll look at that one first, and then look at another type of recovery.
Judie said I could use her as an example, and I would say that her’s is a fairly typical tale as I have discussed training and recovery with friends at work. She wanted to get back into running, pursue a 5K, and have a fun Gear Fest group run this summer (Carly and I had a great one last year) … so she started with a training plan from RunKeeper.
The problem was … what she REALLY wanted to do was to get out there and run every day, but the plan immediately gave her a rest day after a run day. I can totally understand her response – which was basically ‘screw that, I’m going running!’ – but the result of over-training was that she was very soon saying ‘something is wrong with my knee’ and at the doctor getting ultrasound and MRI.
Fortunately she didn’t have a major injury, and just needed to take some time to let her body heal. And she did – not that it is ever easy. Because when you are pursuing a fitness goal, sitting at home feels counter-productive. And depending on the person, not exercising tends to lead to not making good food choices (at least for me), making it even MORE counter-productive. But when recovering from an injury, you need to avoid making things worse, and need to give your body the proper fuel to repair itself.
Since taking the proper time to recover and listening to the plan (and her body) for rest and recovery, Judie has made some amazing strides, completing her 3 month goal in just 5 weeks and continuing to get stronger! It is a great ending to what could have been much worse!
Recovery – Muscle Recovery
If you want to get faster or increase your endurance, you need to vary your workouts. This means things like tempo runs, mixed terrains, hill challenges, fartleks, intervals, mixed distances … and recovery runs.
It is said by exercise physiologists that you don’t gain speed/strength/endurance DURING a workout – in fact, at those times you are depleting resources and breaking your body down. Once that activity stops your body has a strong ‘oh no that was hard, I need to build up to do better next time’ response. So those hard workouts are teaching your body to adapt to even harder workouts in the future.
It is because of this that recovery is important – the minute you stop your hard workout your body starts recovery. Have you provided it with the proper fuel? It isn’t easy – the last thing I want after a run is food in my body! But it is important to rehydrate and fuel up for recovery, which is why there are so many great ‘recovery foods’ people recommend like chocolate milk, sweet potatoes, pistachios and so on.
Then there is the ‘recovery run’. This is a bit odd because many think that ‘recovery’ means ‘rest’ – and it can. But a recovery run can also serve to bridge the gap between training stress and volume.
Training stress is the muscle damage you do during workouts that your body needs to heal to strengthen and get stronger. This is what happens during high-intensity workouts that are critical to improvement. But guess what – even when you aren’t doing ‘peak performance’ workouts your body gains fitness benefits, which is your running volume.
The need for high-intensity workouts is well established, as is rest and recovery through nutrition. Recovery runs are less well-known, but they are being called the key to improving your running. With these runs you are taking it very easy the entire time, not stressing your body – but you are logging more miles, which will benefit your body in the long run.
Rest and Recovery are Key Elements of Your Training Plan
No one starts a running training plan with the desire to NOT run, just like no one works on going faster in order to put in at least 20% of their runs at a deliberately much lower pace. They start running and want to move further and faster. But by constantly trying to go faster and further, we can limit our progress and end up injured. It is critical to learn how to properly rest, just as it is critical to learn to stretch and warm up; it is also critical to learn how to manage our recovery from hard workouts and injuries in order to accelerate our progress when we are working out.
What is hardest for you about rest and recovery periods in your workout routine?