|Helen Davies is a 50km World Championship medallist, Commonwealth Games athlete, mother of two and 3 x Brighton Marathon Champion.|
Let’s talk about recovery; it’s a favourite subject for runners right?!….No!!!!
We all know what it means; we know why we should do it, and most of the time we know what we should be doing. Do we do it as often as we should though? Nah! Of course we don’t.
More often than not, I find myself beating myself up for having a poor session or long run, when what I should really be doing is beating myself up for not nailing my recovery in the preceding days. It is tricky, life, for most of us, for one reason or another it is crazy busy, unless you are full time athlete, the reality is that recovery comes bottom of the list. As runners, our training is prioritised, we are hell bent on not missing a session, a run, strength and conditioning gym session, we place so much importance on the actual process of ‘training’ in the physical sense, then neglect the recovery.
In recent years, certainly since my return to running after the birth of my second son, recovery has been my biggest down fall. It purely comes down to time. When I get in the door from my session, or long run, what should happen is a refuel and fluids within 20mins of getting in, a nice cold bath on my legs, a good session on the roller and stretch out, and then some R&R. What actually happens is two crazy boys jump on me, grab me and drag me outside to show me their sand constructions or lego creations, they are hungry, they want a drink, they have missed mummy, its lunch time, then we go out for the afternoon. None, or only some of that happens. It might get done later, it probably won’t.
As we inevitably progress in our training, we add in more and more miles, more and more strength work, more and more intensity, do we add in more and more recovery to counteract this? Probably not.
I have most certainly learned the hard way on the recovery front. What you can get away with when you are younger is vastly different in your 40’s and a busy athlete/mummy. Thinking I am able to keep going and going only leads to getting a massive bite in the behind. The over training thing, I have discovered creeps up on you, as does not taking your recovery seriously.
I think the biggest moment of realisation for me was post the 50k World championships. I had the best training block I could have hoped for given the circumstances and despite a nasty sickness bug 5 days before which I caught off my boys, I still pulled out a result that far exceeded my expectations. 3-4 days after the race, I felt amazing (or so I thought) and I got out running again, within a week or so I was back up to 50-60-70+ mile weeks and on two strength and conditioning sets per week. This caught up with me, not immediately, but a month or so later, all of sudden none of my training was productive, I had aching muscles that nothing seemed to cure, and I was constantly tired. After about the 6th trip to physio to try and find out why certain muscle groups were not firing up, or constantly hurt, he said to me, Helen, I honestly think, you are just exhausted, please take a couple of weeks off – EVERYTHING!
Since this experience, I have made it my mission, to make myself better informed on the subject of recovery, in every aspect! It was an incredibly enlightening experience. So here is a shocker! Running doesn’t make you fitter. Yup – I hear you all – what the hell is Helen banging on about! She’s lost it! Hear me out….
Let’s Simplify it, if you actually got fitter, while you ran – you would be stronger in the last mile of a marathon than in the first, unlikely! Recovering from running is what makes you fitter. When we perform a hard session or demanding run, the stress on the body flips a number of hormonal and genetic switches in the body, allowing it to adapt in ways to make you better prepared for your next workout. BUT, and it’s a BIG but, these adaptions occur when your body is at REST – yes that word again, R.E.S.T!
Obviously resting all the time won’t help you get fit; there is a balance to hit. You still have to work hard. FACT – the strongest recovery response and therefore BIGGEST fitness gains follow your hardest and most challenging workouts – runs near your maximum effort. This is the kind of FACT us runners need to read over and over again, I know myself that the biggest mistakes I have made ( and still do) do not surround my training, I train HARD as hell, but I don’t always REST hard as hell.
Once you flip it on its head and realise that the resting and recovery is actually making you fitter in-between your hard sessions, it’s a whole lot easier to do.
I asked my strength and conditioning and Mind-set Coach for his comments on the importance of recovery and rest. Here is what he had to say:
“Recovery. The fundamentals of recovery are Rest and Relaxation.
Rest. Relating to whole body and importantly mind recovery.
You could argue there is an art to it. We are now in a time where meditation, ice baths, acupuncture, sleep, hydration, food and supplementation are all well respected and utilised forms of recovery. I’ve always felt it’s important to first understand your basic controllable measures such as food, sleep and hydration before delving too deeply into other methods. I like the Socrates quote - "Better to do a little well, than a great deal badly".
Creating a positive mentality towards these recovery methods and implementing consistent habits are important for a pro-active approach to recovery. This will essentially lessen your risk of injury and stop you from exceeding your maximal recoverable volume.
Life stress is a huge factor when talking about recovery. How we address the external factors can be as important as the physical recovery after an intense session.
How often would you sit still, without noise or distractions? Committing to 5 minutes of R&R In your day won't initially be a life changer but it’s the start to solid foundations and a good relationship with recovery. We so often beat ourselves up for not going to the gym or working out but we need to be aware of the risk to benefit ratio.
BUILD YOUR FOUNDATIONS STRONG. Take a minute for you, surround yourself with positivity listen to your body’s needs. It's the foundations we often skip when on our quest to a target and that's the reason our progress is often slow or we ‘fall off the wagon’”
~Kieran of Viking Vitality – Strength, conditioning and mind-set Coach
So, there we have it. We MUST listen, we need to stop thinking that the answer to improvement is more hard work on top of work, but perhaps, indeed the total opposite! If your training is always feeling hard, but unproductive, try considering that it is not the training that needs looking at, but the recovery process you are following in-between the ‘hard’ work, and how you can maximise this to reach your full potential during your training and in turn your performance.
‘SLOWLY SLOWLY’ – said the Sloth, this is one of my boys favourite story books, by Eric Carle. The Sloth tells us how he is not LAZY, but has simply adapted to a slower pace. My boys often remind me I need to be ‘more sloth’ run SLOWLY on recovery days, and not running everything hard or fast! This is another common mistake made by many runners and even coaches who follow a more ‘old school’ approach, running everything in between sessions at a ‘steady or steady/tempo’ pace. The result is short term gain only, and will eventually lead to over training syndrome, fatigue, burn out both physically and mentally, poor performance, illness, injury and even depression.
RECOVERY running should be slower, easy, paying attention to heart rate (not pace), taking nothing out, cross train, or if needed REST – sometimes, REST is BEST.
Finally, enhance and maximise your recovery in any way you can, this is fundamental for the busy bees! Being SMART with the recovery is paramount. Prepare things for your recovery in advance, as you would for your sessions and races. Get organised with an achievable recovery plan, and set aside time for this. Choose good recovery products that work for you, good nutrition, foods, and snacks. Reduce inflammation, hydrate, foam roll, stretch, massage, magnesium salt baths and get GOOD ‘CLEAN’ SLEEP.
So let’s wrap this up– next time you think about skipping your rest day or pushing harder on your recovery day, think about all the performance gains you are missing out on.
I am the first to admit, that I still don’t like REST days and that I don’t find them easy, but I do know that they are important and necessary, and also realise they take as much discipline and commitment as the training itself.
I will close article this with one of my favourite quotes:
“I constantly remind myself that resting takes confidence. Anyone can train like a mad man, but to embrace rest and allow all the hard training to come out takes real mental strength”
By Helen Davies