Saturday, May 11, 2013

Stages of Recovery from a Competitive Running Season

I am in the heart of semi-annual recovery right now. I am experiencing thoughts and physical feelings that are worth quantifying. End of season recovery is not talked about enough. The standard advice is take 1-3 weeks off twice a year or 2-5 weeks once a year with no, or very little running, and low activity in general. So when I decided to run every day, there was scant information available, the best I could find was about Ron Hill. I would buy his biography, but at $140 for just half of it, even though I collect a few antique books, that is a little too much. As I trotted around my 16.3 miles for the week at a 9:04 minutes per mile average I spent some time thinking about season recovery and the stages that one goes through. Here are the stages of recovery from a competitive running season:

  1. First, there is the physical damage from the race. This is divided into A: Total Body Damage and B: Deep Effort Damage. A: This is the few days after shorter races and perhaps a week or two after marathons and longer where all sorts of things are out of wack. The legs feel heavy and sore, maybe the back hurts, the runner is physically tired, and the energy to do other races and workouts is low. In this early early stage the person is tired when not running. B: This is when you feel recovered. Even jogging feels easy, maybe a few strides feel good too. However, any attempt to do a harder workout will end poorly. Muscle damage has occurred to the fibers only used during hard efforts which are not felt walking around or sitting. This kind of recovery could be only a week for a 5k or shorter and up to a month or two months or more for marathon or longer races. This is also the time to try and recovery from any nagging injuries that might have happened during the season, such as shin splints.
  2. Second is the perspective of the season that takes some time to set in. After a long season of training and racing there will certainly be highs and lows. Regardless of how the season ends, most runners, in the vast majority of seasons, can take away both positive memories and unfortunate lessons learned to apply to the next season. In the context of any one weekend this is nearly impossible to appreciate. The joy or disappointment of having just finished a race well or poorly masks the larger picture of what you are trying to accomplish. In development, not all steps are big steps forward, but they are all steps.
  3. Next is the loss of fitness. The resting heart rate goes up, a couple pounds are likely gained, and activities not normally enjoyed during serious training occur. Spontaneous activities, which normal people might do every weekend like stay up late, are enjoyed. Regardless of what one does in the off season, fitness will be lost. If a person could maintain world record fitness 52 weeks a year, he or she would so that more competitions could be run and more money made. Obviously, that is not the case. Even David Rudisha, the 800 meter world record holder who has broken the record three times, has only ever broken the record in the month of August. Even in the 100, three of the last five world records were run in August.
  4. Fourth is the replenishment of nutrients. I don't know how much zinc, calcium, iron, potassium, and everything else I need every day as a function of mileage, pace, temperature, and absorption rates, but I guarantee I get it wrong a lot of days. Even though I take a multivitamin a few times a week, it is not advisable to just take a slew of pills and hope that everything is what one needs. One could overdose on iron or eat 5000 calories a day every day, neither of which is advisable. Thus, taking a break from hard training allows the body to store up the nutrients, at least iron, so that it can be withdrawn during the next season as needed. This is also the necessary time to rest the endocrine system, which is responsible for adrenaline and other hormones. Not requiring a volume of hormones during the rest period allows the body to recover and have more hormone output during hard training, when every drop of adrenaline is desired. For runners who have suffered nutrient issues in the past, like anemia, this recovery stage is especially important.
  5. Finally the hunger to do better returns. In high school and college there is always another conference, state or national championship. After college there are marathons to run or times to qualify for races, or personal records to set. After sufficient reflection, most come to the realization that there is another goal out there worth training for. Once the motivation is in place, training can ramp up. This is a critical phase. I tell my college athletes that they need to rest until they are motivated to train again. If that takes six weeks without running a step, so be it. Hopefully they don't take all summer off, and lose all of their fitness gains, but that is another subject. Some people do not have the motivation to train months before the goal race despite natural talent that would allow them significant success. For these people, this article means nothing because so much time is spent not training. For those wanting to do better next season, and willing to train in the summer or over Christmas break, this article is for you. The point being, without motivation built up in the off season the hard workouts in the middle of the season will not be run well. As I always say: Stay Motivated, Stay Healthy, Train Hard.
Right now I'm in stage three and four. I had inklings of stage five Thursday which encouraged me to create this little stages process. It takes time, and it is important not to rush recovery. If that means I don't have a 20 mile week in May, so be it.

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