This most underrated variable in running programs across the land is RECOVERY. Most athletes believe that working harder, faster, and training longer will produce optimally desired results. The “more is better” mentality is common and plagues runners of all abilities and experience levels. It is not only individual athletes who struggle with this; even formal training programs sometimes fail simply because inadequate recovery is prescribed. Unfortunately, without adequate recovery, we may not see the true benefits of our hard work on the track and roads.
Recovery is a critical training component and encompasses concepts such as “days off” from running, sleep and mental recovery. All athletes will respond differently and there is no “one size fits all” when addressing these factors. The volume and frequency of recovery greatly depends on the experience and history of the athlete, as well as individual psychosocial factors. Past injury, age, goals, and levels of commitment must all be taken into account to find the ideal ratio of running to rest in order to produce consistent improvements in performance as years pass. As we all know, to truly excel in running, we need to be as consistent as possible and log enough miles to get us to our goals – without becoming injured or overdoing it. By getting some much needed rest and relaxation from time to time, you can keep yourself fresh, motivated, and continually improving.
It can be difficult to know exactly how much rest is needed for each one of us. Some will wait until they find themselves at the orthopedic specialist to get that rest in.
Hopefully, your recovery has either been pre-planned or the need has been acknowledged prior to injury. The human body uses common injuries to protect itself from more serious overuse. Most of us will need days and even weeks off on an annual basis. In a Finnish study, “Training-related risk factors in the etiology of overuse injuries in endurance sports,” 446 Finnish athletes who used less than 2 rest days per week had a 5.2 fold increased risk for an overuse injury; tendon overuse injuries were more common in older athletes compared to younger. This is not particularly surprising; however, each one of us typically wonders, how much rest do we need in order to avoid these injuries? Since the answer to this question can only be determined for each one of us through experience, the key may really be avoiding what is known as “overreaching,” or, even more concerning, “overtraining syndrome. ”Overreaching and overtraining syndrome (OTS) are well-studied phenomena. OTS is a clinical diagnosis is a “maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in perturbations of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes” (Kreher et al, Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health. 2012 Mar;4(2):128-38). As defined by the joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine (Meeusen et al, 2006), “overreaching” is different and has less severe consequences compared to OTS. Overreaching can be considered “functional” or “nonfunctional” but most athletes will recover from either type of overreaching.
Functional overreaching leads to “short-term decrements in performance in capacity with or without physiologic and psychological signs and symptoms of maladaptation in which restoration of performance capacity may take several days to several weeks” (Meeusen et al, 2006) but eventually leads to positive performance outcomes in the long run. An example might be attendance at a running camp that, in the short term, makes competing in races difficult but, in the long run, leads to better performance overall. Nonfunctional overreaching is more negative, where an athlete who consistently works at levels that are taxing (without allowing for adequate rest) experiences challenges in performance that are more remarkable (without seeing the longer term benefits); recovery from nonfunctional overreaching takes weeks to months, leading to negative psychological, neurologic or hormonal side effects and poor performance outcomes. Recovery from nonfunctional overreaching eventually occurs, given appropriate prolonged rest. At the most extreme, athletes who overtrain are susceptible to OTS; recovery from OTS may take months, or may not possible at all; individuals sometimes have to discontinue a career in running. The concerning clinical warning signs of OTS include extreme lethargy, loss of appetite, decreased coordination and physical side effects such as impaired performance, postural hypotension, loss of menstruation, and changes in heart rate from normal. To avoid overtraining syndrome, the key is avoiding excessive training (including excessive non-running activities) and focusing on obtaining adequate rest, as well as controlling other factors including nutrition and minimizing psychosocial stressors in one’s life. Two interesting examples of high volume runners in our area are Tom O’Grady and Jim Sweeney; each rarely takes a rest day but both seem to avoid overreaching and OTS. These two men exemplify what true consistency and dedication is all about; by uniquely managing their recovery, they have been able to generally stay clear of common injury and have built impressive running resumes. Between the two of them they’ve had one break (5 days off with appendicitis for Tom O’Grady) in the last 15 years. During this eight year span they have accumulated a rough total of about 60,000 miles between the two of them. The total mileage here would have taken them two and a half times around the world.
5k – 15:21, 10k – 32:12, 10 Mile – 53:38, Half Marathon – 1:10.56 Marathon – 2:28.39 – One break in 8 years
100 Miles – 14:14:25, 100K – 7:11:53, 50 Miles – 5:38, Marathon – 2:35, 50k – 3:17 — 8 Year running streak on August 20th 2014
Recovery for some runners – such as for Tom and Jim – does not mean taking a day or two off from running every week. When asked about this topic, Tom stated, “Recovery for me is running with new people or trying some new running routes.” Tom does not feel he has experienced overreaching or OTS. By managing his workout schedule nutrition, sleep, and psychosocial factors so well, Tom has continued to make gains year-by-year in his running performance, despite high mileage and an intense training regimen. Jim’s record speaks loud and clear.
Perhaps recovery means taking a week off after a marathon – or taking two days off on a harder week when you’re juggling work challenges. Perhaps changing things up a bit after a long season and incorporating cross-training into your workout can give you that boost you need to pursue your new goals. Whatever it may be, remember that recovery is a critical component of training and continually improving your running while avoiding overreaching and overtraining syndrome.