I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
Of all the many things top athletes do that us mere mortals do not do to become good at running, the simplest and yet most overlooked are probably sleep, rest and recovery. In Adharanand Finn's excellent book, Running With The Kenyans, he explains how the athletes in Iten train. In summary, they go to bed early, get up early, run, eat, sleep, run, eat and sleep again. Of course, only professional athletes have that amount of time to sleep. Then again, we're not generally doing the mileage they are, or at the same pace. However, if you get as much sleep as you can, you're definitely putting yourself in a much better position maximise your performance.
As anyone who has lifted weights will tell you, the soreness after a hard session is very real, and you can get the same feelings after a long or hard run. The reason for the discomfort is due to your muscles being broken down and being rebuilt. Tiny tears in the the muscle fibres occur when the muscle is pushed beyond its usual limit. Then, in the following days, the muscles repair themselves - so it's in this rest period that the muscles actually grow.
The same applies to running, particularly in fast sessions where different muscles are recruited or lengthened, and in long runs, where the constant pounding breaks down muscles and creates soreness. Either way, you need to recover, if not with an easy run, then by giving the muscles complete rest.
Rest tends to divide opinion. Some people swear by doing as little as possible on rest days. Others prefer to keep moving with what's known as 'active recovery' - not running but non-impact exercise such as cycling or cross training which promotes blood flow and flushes toxins out of the body, and 'shakes out' any aches.
What is agreed upon is that recovery after a long or hard session is necessary. Do too many tough sessions in a row and instead of simply pushing the body it will tip it over the edge - and this is a quick way to injury and fatigue. I wrote about injuries before and many come from overtraining. It takes time to work out what your body can handle in terms of training sessions but it's always better to err on the side of caution to begin with.
As well as not running, active recovery and sleep, there are other techniques to help your body recover for the next session, including stretching and foam rolling. I'll cover these in more detail in a future post, but both are almost universally agreed to be an important if not essential part of the recovery process.
There are some other approaches which science hasn't proven or about which there's ongoing discussion. Ice baths after hard sessions have become popular over recent years and while they do reduce inflammation in the short term - and are therefore useful for rugby players recovering for their next game, for example - might actually impair the muscle building and adaptation your body needs for getting stronger. Then there's compression tights. I know of quite a few people who swear by them, despite the fact that there's no scientific evidence that they have an impact on recovery. However - and this is an important point - if the user feels like they are doing good, and it feels good, there's absolutely no harm in wearing them. The mind is a powerful thing and placebos are known to be incredibly effective.
Another crucial part of recovery is in nutrition. A huge subject and another one for a future post, but do not underestimate the importance of fueling your body as part of the training process. Without the right nutrients, your body won't be able to perform, especially if you are hitting the key sessions hard.
The most important time to refuel is immediately after a hard session. If you can get something - almost anything - into your system within 20-30 minutes, you’re likely to recover better than if you wait an hour or two before eating. There was an article doing the rounds a little while ago espousing the benefits of chocolate milk, but even a glass of plain milk is better than nothing. The protein will help start the recovery process and ensure that you’re better placed to start your next session as strong as possible.
Thoughts for the week
- Sleep as much as can.
- Rest as much as you need to.
- Eat as soon as you can after hard workouts.