Ok, I have to admit it’s taken me 20 years of running, a few injuries and too many illnesses to count to find out (the hard way) what ‘recovery’ really means.
Yes, I had heard the word ‘recovery’ countless times, read about it, thought I implemented it in my program and would thoroughly agree with anyone who purported its importance to an athlete. However, I’ve since learnt that thinking you know, and actually knowing, are two very different things.
As a long distance runner you get used to feeling tired. And sore. And grumpy. You often turn up to a session thinking “how am I going to get through the warm up, let alone the session?” Fatigue is all part and parcel of our sport, and there is an element of truth to the saying “an athlete wakes up tired and goes to bed even more tired”. But there is a fine line, and looking back with the glorious benefit of hindsight, I can now see I crossed this line. And I believe this is a mistake many other runners make, regardless of age, experience or ability.
My training regime consisted of three quality sessions a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), with recovery runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as well as a long run on Sunday. Unlike my Mum (a casual jogger) who believes a run is something done at a comfortable, talking pace (followed by a coffee out after), I always had this innate desire to push myself. I use to think what’s the point of going for a run if you’re not hurting and working? I can now admit my Mum had it right - who would have guessed?! I had an inkling all was not correct with my training approach when I would do these ‘easy’ jogs with some of Australia’s best male runners. Often I would find their pace too slow and I would want to drop them…but a little voice in my head asked “why should I be ahead of them if they are able to race so much faster”?
Unsurprisingly I was overtraining, and I eventually paid the price by breaking down with a stress fracture and an enforced five months of rest. When the time came to return to running, I was very cautious to build up slowly and correctly. I sourced out as much information as I could, as the last thing I wanted to do was repeat my mistake. As my Dad always quotes, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
One of the first things I learnt and implemented was that my recovery runs had to be done at 75% of my maximum heart rate. After determining my highest heart rate zone when running hard and fast in sessions, I worked out what my heart rate during a recovery run should be. This meant my easy runs now changed from 4.10-4.20min/km pace (sometimes even 3.50min/km pace!) to 4.40-4.50min/km pace. At first I worried I wasn’t getting any benefit from going this slow; the competitive, masochist runner in me was still there. However the fear of breaking down again held me back. For the first time in my life I realised what recovery meant. It didn’t mean replacing my sessions for longer runs with a less intense, more drawn out type of pain; it meant using running to repair my muscles. A recovery run is not meant to feel overly taxing or tiring, and you should always finish feeling like you could keep going. The biggest benefit I have since found is that I can now get much better quality out of my sessions. Speed and strength have returned, and I’m mentally and physically rejuvenated to fire on these quality days.
I have also learnt not be scared of rest days. A day off running usually meant I was sick in bed or literally unable to run due to a niggle or supreme soreness. Days off were far and few between and I was usually told to have one, rather than me deciding to. I now have one day off every week, and counteract the “runner’s guilt” of doing so by including a simple, short cross-training session on this day.
Similarly, I learnt not to be scared to swap, change and delay training days. Athletes are generally highly disciplined individuals who thrive off routine and who love following a training program to a tee. But if you wake up one morning feeling horribly flat and fatigued, but think “oh, it’s Tuesday, so I have to do my track session”, pause for a moment and consider postponing the session one day. This may be harder if you are committed to training with others, however sometimes you have to be selfish when it comes to being the best runner you can. There is no point training to keep someone else happy, especially if it means you’ll end up sick or injured. This is when utilising your resting heart rate is important. If you get into the habit of measuring it each morning, it will be easy to judge when you a truly fatigued, as any marked increase from the norm may indicate that you aren't fully recovered.
Another way to test recovery is to use something called the orthostatic heart rate test, developed by Heikki Rusko while working with cross country skiers. To obtain this measurement:
Well rested athletes will show a consistent heart rate between measurements, but Rusko found a marked increase (10 beats/minutes or more) in the 120 second-post- standing measurement of athletes on the verge of overtraining. Such a change may indicate that you have not recovered from a previous workout, are fatigued, or otherwise stressed and it may be helpful to reduce training or rest another day before performing another workout.
Another simple tip is to keep a training diary that includes a note about how your feel each day, as this can help you notice downward trends and decreased enthusiasm. While there are many proposed ways to objectively test for overtraining, the most accurate and sensitive measurements are psychological signs, symptoms and changes in an athlete's mental state. Decreased positive feelings for sports and increased negative feelings, such as depression, anger, fatigue and irritability often appear after a few days of intensive overtraining.
It's often hard to predict overtraining because every athlete responds differently to certain training routines. However, if these common warning signs and symptoms ring any alarm bells, you may be suffering from overtraining syndrome:
If you suspect you are overtraining, start with the following:
It’s always scary to make changes to how you train, however if you suspect you are overtraining, going easier might actually improve your performance. This is somewhat of a foreign concept to avid runners!