The funny thing about running is that sometimes the space between where you are and where you want to be can’t be bridged by doing more. You may only be able to reach that place by doing less and taking more rest.
I learnt this my first year as a post-collegiate. I was running more than I ever had, I was in the weight room properly for the first time, but I was also busier than I ever had been working 40+ hours a week. All winter my mantra was “winter miles bring summer smiles” but what I really should have been thinking was “maybe I should take a nap.” Needless to say, that was a pretty disappointing season, because I was so exhausted by the time I got to the outdoor season.
Thankfully, I’ve learnt more about training since then, and have realized that recovery is a highly important, yet very underrated component of training. For me, working hard is easy, but it’s taking a step back and resting that’s the hard part.
The following is what I try to put effort into to improve my recovery.
Sleep is the single most important tool for recovery. If you aren’t doing anything to improve your recovery right now, sleeping is the cheapest and most effective way to recover better.
Your body repairs and regenerates damaged tissues from the day’s workout and builds bone and muscle while you sleep by releasing various hormones, including human growth hormone, (HGH). If you don’t sleep enough, you produce less HGH and it becomes harder to recover from workouts.
Too little sleep also leads to an increase in cortisol, which often comes out during times of stress. An increase in cortisol also contributes to slower recovery times.
Earlier this year I read Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson, but all of his sleep tips in the book are nicely summarized in this article. After reading the book, I’ve enforced a coffee curfew and have developed a bedtime routine where I try to get off my computer and phone at least 45 minutes before I go to bed.
I’ve already shared a lot about my nutrition philosophy and what I typically eat in a day, but I want to speak specifically to the importance of what you eat after a workout. Eating anything after a workout is better than eating nothing, but you should be trying to get in protein, carbohydrates and focusing on rehydrating. Protein helps speed muscle repair after hard workouts and carbohydrates replenish your glycogen, leading to faster recovery.
I often bring a smoothie with me to practice, rather than waiting to make one when I get home. This also bridges the gap between working out and waiting to eat until a meal is ready.
A lot of runners might be surprised to find out that I don’t run fast on my off days. I usually try to listen to my body and run a pace that will help me feel recovered the next day. Personally, I would much rather have very strong workouts over running my off days at a certain pace. I only have so much energy in a training cycle and part of the mastery of training is learning how to manage that energy appropriately.
This January, I went to San Diego for the Athletics Canada warm weather training camp and I learnt a great deal from the West Hub staff and athletes. Every Sunday, they do a recovery session a few hours after their long run. In this session, they take time to roll out every area with purpose. I’ve adopted this into my own training.
Committing to do self treatment takes time and self discipline, but since I’ve starting doing more pre-run activation and post-run rolling, I have had significantly less aches and pains and haven’t been injured in over a year. Not everyone has the luxury to do this, but if you try to foam roll for even a few minutes after a run, you’ll likely feel better the next day.
The best way to have success in recovery is to anticipate what issues you are going to have, and try to set yourself up to avoid those circumstances. If you know you’re going to stay up looking through Twitter if you bring your phone into your bedroom, then leave your phone somewhere else. If you’re not going to eat after a workout until an hour later after you’ve commuted home and made dinner, then leave a bag of trail mix or a stash of bars in your bag. Like anything in training, planning is the key to success.