by DeeAnn Dougherty
Reprinted with permission from Race Center Northwest, Oct/Nov/Dec 2002

Can More Rest Make You More Fit?

One of the most important, and most neglected, principles of training is recovery. Most athletes learn to use a jog as rest after a hard interval to enhance recovery for the next interval, and they usually learn that hard days should be separated by one or more easy days. The smart ones realize that it's a good idea to follow every three weeks of intense training with an easy week. But often this principle isn't carried far enough to include an intentional period of four to six weeks of down time every year. This break often occurs unintentionally due to illness or injury that forces time off. Those living in extreme climates may curtail their training during the hottest/coldest times of the year. Planning this recovery period at a convenient time is certainly preferable, and may well prevent injury, overtraining and burnout. It is interesting to note that it is during the recovery/easy days between hard workouts that the adaptations in the body occur, making it stronger and fitter. In fact, it is providing the correct ratio between load (training) and recovery (rest) that determines degree of fitness.

Many runners, cyclists and triathletes plan their competitive schedules well in advance, deciding which races they'll do the next year and the importance of each race. They then divide the year (or part of the year) into a designated preparatory (training) period and a competitive (racing) period that includes tapering and peaking. Tapering involves reducing the workload to maximize strength, speed, and endurance, and peaking is the temporary state where fitness is maximized. The most important race of the year is usually at the end of the competitive period, and is followed by the transition (recovery) period, which is followed by the next preparatory period, etc. This structuring of training is called periodization.

The recovery period may involve some complete rest but most often consists of active rest, including activities other than your usual sport. A marathoner might walk, cycle, or swim. A triathlete might hike, mountain bike, or cross-country ski. Anything to get away from the grind of training, allowing the mind and body to recover from the season. It's a great time to get reacquainted with family and friends, let nagging injuries heal or address serious injuries, to do all the things that you might not have had time to do during the previous months of training and racing. It's also an opportunity to take a yoga or Pilates class to work on imbalances in strength and flexibility.

This respite from training also allows time to reflect on the racing season, evaluate performances, identify strengths and weaknesses, and plan future training and goals. It's often easier to be more objective about your progress when you have a little distance from it. The time off allows relief from the mental as well as the physical stress of training and competing. The psychological intensity required is difficult to maintain for long periods of time, and staleness, burnout, and overtraining often result, with a corresponding decrease in performance. Your mind needs a break as well!

The length of your season, your fitness level, how hard you competed, and the race conditions (high heat and/or humidity, difficulty and length of the course) all influence how long a recovery period you need. Competitors who go out too fast in a marathon or triathlon and blow up often have a much more difficult time recovering than others. Recovery is specific to the individual, and you should not resume full training until you feel you want to, not have to. You should feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and excited to start training again. The smart athlete will return from a break feeling physically and mentally ready for the next challenges.

Marathon Recovery

Marathon recovery starts the second you finish the race. Keep moving through the finish chute and into the finisher's area, allowing your body to gradually return to a steady state. DO NOT stretch, sit or lie down, or do a cool-down jog. Your first priority is replenishing fluids, drinking several ounces per hour for the next several hours. Carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement drinks are the best choice, water second best. If you drink beer, you must drink twice as much water or other fluid as beer to compensate for the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. Eat what looks good to you in the finisher's area, but then also eat a full meal as soon as you can. Research shows that the muscles absorb glycogen the fastest within one to two hours after the marathon, and eating during this window will aid your recovery tremendously. If massage is offered at the finish, take advantage of it. If you are experiencing severe pain anywhere, visit the medical area.

One of the best things to do shortly after you get done is to get your legs into cold water. There is a great deal of microtrauma to the muscle cells from running 26.2 miles, causing inflammation and swelling. Avoid the temptation of a long soak in a hot bath as this may cause more swelling and significantly increase muscle soreness. Putting your legs in a cold pool or a tub of cold water will pay great dividends in how you feel into the next day. Take a warm (not hot) shower afterward.

A nap is usually in order. Then it will be time to eat again. You may find that you crave high fat and protein-laden foods. Eat them — you earned it! A short (10-15 min) walk later in the day will help with stiffness and soreness.

In the first few days after the marathon, icing, massage, and gentle stretching will assist with relief from muscle soreness. It's now ok to take the long soak in the hot tub if you want. Continue to drink and eat often, and get plenty of sleep. Keep your stress level low if possible. You may experience PMS (post-marathon syndrome). These are normal feelings of mild to marked depression that may last for a few days after the race.

Some research shows that the muscle damage has started to resolve seven days post-marathon. This would support taking a full week off from running after a marathon to allow muscles to begin healing without further trauma. Severe, persistent soreness indicates extensive damage to muscles and connective tissue, and requires more recovery time. Complete rest is not a good idea — get up off that couch! Active rest including non-impact activities such as swimming, easy cycling, and walking keep the legs moving and aid recovery by relieving stiffness and increasing circulation to damaged tissues. Start light jogging when you feel ready mentally and physically. If you start back too soon or too intensely, you'll probably get sick or hurt. It's important to let your body heal before resuming any hard training or racing. A couple guidelines are either 10 miles of training for every mile raced (260 miles of training after a marathon) or 1 day of rest/easy training for every mile raced (26 post-marathon) before starting speedwork or entering another race. Training is often resumed with a reverse taper– running the same mileage of the three weeks prior to your marathon in reverse order. There is often a temptation to feel invincible after a marathon and to start hard training too quickly, which you might get away with for four to six weeks, but then crash and burn with injury or illness. You have maintained great cardiovascular fitness but need to give your musculoskeletal system time to readjust.

Take That Break

Plan to take a four to six week restorative break after a marathon, ironman, or series of shorter races. It is as integral to your training as the recovery jog during an interval session and the easy days after a long run.