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Rapid Recovery For Runners

05 January

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The End is the Beginning Is the End Is the…
Creative Commons License photo credit: *PaysImaginaire*

With the Goofy Challenge mere days away, and the growing popularity of more hard core running events that let you stack up serious miles like Reach the Beach or Bay to Breakers, this article is meant to address the need for almost instant run recovery. Success in endurance running events has less to do with your fitness than it does with your ability to handle the associated physical and mental fatigue. Being able to bounce back, in other words, is a critical success factor.

Understanding Recovery

Most runners assume that recovery is what you do after you finish running, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of you run enough during the week that your body is almost always within 24 hours of a workout (if not less). In this sense, we are always recovering from one session and preparing for another.

True recovery is about managing the progressive overload of your training program. Recovery is essentially how you decompress from that run, what you eat to fuel your muscles, how you care for the stress you put on those muscles and then, how you prepare for the next session. No one single run, save for perhaps your longest run in marathon training, should put you in such a deep hole as to need a special recovery process — and even long runs like that can be handled differently if need be.

While we have a lot of practice with recovery thanks to our daily training, handling an event is another story entirely: you are in a different place, you have different goals, you are running on new roads, there are distractions galore…the list goes on. Hopefully the list below will help you make the most of your next big event; if you have additional thoughts, please add them in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Phase 1:  Pre-Event

Your ability to handle the rigors of a multi-stage race is largely determined by how rested you are coming into the event. Being the fittest version of yourself does no good if you are too tired to really participate. Without a doubt you’ll hit a wall during your event — that’s part of why you chose the event! — but many runners make these events harder than required by nuking themselves long before the starting gun.

Be Specific: Do your best to mimic the conditions of race day within your training plan. A large part of our Goofy Challenge training plan has been weekly “double” sessions run on Saturday and Sunday. This served a dual purpose: allowing us to build up the mileage safely and, even more importantly, giving us many opportunities to test our pacing, nutrition and recovery. While you don’t need to head to the mountains and run at one in the morning every weekend between now and your next epic event, you can stack run or even schedule a race rehearsal [link] to eliminate most of the guesswork on race day.

The Taper: From a fitness perspective, you need to begin reducing your training load starting around 21 days (Or closer to 14 days for the more advanced runners). This means that your longest overall training session is done and the total volume of running will decrease accordingly. While everyone has their own best personal taper strategy, a standard three-week taper would look like this:

  • Week 3 – 75% of peak volume.
  • Week 2 – 50% of peak volume.
  • Race Week – 30%  of peak volume.

So if your longest running week was 60 miles then Week 3 would be 45 miles, Week 2 would be 30, Race Week would be about 20 miles. Week 3 is still a solid training week with a good hard long run effort, it’s just shorter. Week 2 and Race Week are where your body absorbs the training and prepares to actually race.

Staying Sharp: One of the most critical elements of the taper is called “sharpening.” The goal here is to avoid being sluggish or stuck in full-on recovery mode when the race starts. This can be accomplished by adding some speed work into the final two weeks of your taper. We aren’t talking mile repeats here, as the time for building fitness is long gone. Instead, we are looking for sessions where we can keep the fast-twitch muscles working and hone our running form. Two key session in this regard are:

  • Strides: These are short 20-second windows where you run at top speed (but not all out), aiming for about 30 left foot strikes. The focus here is on maximum speed through minimal work — avoid the clenched-fist hammer sprinting mentality. You can add six to eight repeats of these to three or four runs a week during your taper.
  • Fivers: This is a short speed session of five intervals run at 5k pace, the sum total of which equals one-third of your overall 5k time. So if you run a 24 minute 5k, then your workout would be: five repeats at 7:43 pace per mile for a total of 8 minutes, aka 5 x 1:40 @ 7:43 pace. Recovery from each interval should be twice as long as you run, in this case 3 minutes and 20 seconds. This can be done up to twice a week during the taper window, there is no need to do Strides at the end of this session.


Phase 2: Pacing & Nutrition

Assuming you showed up in good condition, your work is only one-third done. All that good preparation can go right out the window if you decide to hammer like an Olympic sprinter and recover by eating like a long-haul trucker at the roadside diner. Here are some tips to continue the positive cycle of recovery.

Law of Conservation of Energy: Borrowing from Physics, this law states that “states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time (is said to be conserved over time).”  You want to run your event in the same manner; working just hard enough to fast without overextending to the point that you can’t replicate (or improve!) this effort again in the near future. To put it another way, you should run every segment of your event with the total mileage in mind — pacing the Goofy Challenge, then, is about racing a 39.3 event, not a half or a full.

Be A Tortoise: Your goal is to be your best across the whole event, and the most optimal way to achieve that is to be consistent. Do the math on what you want your goals to be, map the pacing out as best you can across your event and then stick to the plan. Save all the last minute heroics for just that — the last few miles. It’s easy to be overconfident and make mistakes in the early stages when you still feel good — after all everyone feels good at this point. Your goal is to still feel good at the end, when it’s crunch time, and to have that little bit more mental / physical energy to get it done.

Never Bonk: Another reason to back down the pacing slightly and to formulate a plan is to make sure that you are in a constant state of good fueling practices. What you consume during your run is almost as important as what you eat afterwards. Make sure it’s portable and easy to use by testing it in training. Have enough for the full event packed, and just a few extra for each leg you are on…last thing you want to do is run out before you hit the finish. Bonus if you can find out what will be on the course and train with it.

Note: The longer you are running in terms of sessions per day and total days, the more you’ll need to fuel. While you might not eat anything on your average hour-long run at home, stacking several of those across 48 hours will require you to consume some calories to fuel your body during the actual run.

Phase 3: 30 minutes Post Run

Now that your segment is done, it’s time to stop the watch and start focusing on recovery. Save staring at your splits for later in the day; you only have a short period of time to effectively start the recovery process and missing the window can really sabotage your overall goals.

Fresh Clothes: You simply can’t beat a nice new layer of dry clothes–even if you haven’t showered! This includes everything from a hat to footwear. The faster you can switch the better, as your body can then begin putting energy into recovery and not into keeping you warm, etc. Be sure to pack clothes for roughly 20-degrees cooler than anticipated at your finish…even if it’s 80 out, you’ll want to have a light-weight fleece that you could use on a regular 60-degree day.

Feeding Time: Up next is some quick food for your muscles; without getting into the science, most experts recommend a liquid beverage with a 4:1 ratio of carbs to proteins. There are a lot of fancy supplements you can order online, but truth be told low-fat chocolate milk is an excellent substitute. Whatever your drink of choice, get it in quickly and with a good amount of water as well.

Feet Up; Legs Compressed: The final order of business is to get your legs elevated. The most ideal way is to fully lay down with your legs up, but if that’s not possible than just get them up while seated. The goal here is to facilitate the return flow of blood to the heart, allowing your body to effectively process the damage you have done. This can be enhanced by adding some compression wear to the equation such as compression socks. You can find medical versions at your local pharmacy that are just effective as the high-dollar sport specific models (although they are admittedly less attractive).

Phase 4: 30 minutes to 3 hours Post Run

With the quick work of recovery well on it’s way, it’s time to look at the next major window of time. Whether you are racing again shortly or not for another day, your body will be seeking out a state of full recovery that you need to simultaneously support yet prevent from setting in. Once you hit full recovery you simply won’t be able to bounce back and run to your potential as your legs will have packed it in.

Proper Meal: Continue the feeding process with a really good healthy meal. Avoid lots of complex sugars (i.e. candy bar and soda is not a meal) as well as leafy greens (hard to process). Stick to the lean meats and pastas — odds are you can find some flavor of Chicken Parmesan anywhere in the US, for example. Make this very next meal a big one. Primarily because your body needs it, but also because you won’t want to eat a bigger meal later when it’s closer to your next run.

Cat Nap: If you have the superpower of being able to nap, then now’s the time to use it. Anything from 15 to 45 minutes will go a long way to making you mentally and physically refreshed. Timed right with your meal (above) you should be able to catch some quick winks. Bonus is that your legs can be elevated here as well.

Modest Movement: Knowing that you have more work coming up, do your best to avoid being stuck in any one single position: sitting, standing, even sleeping for extended periods of time (save for night!) will all make you stiff. Continue to facilitate recovery through some light walking and stretching. Your muscles will thank you when it’s time to get going again!

Phase 5: Preparing for the Next Stage

As the time to run again approaches, you’ll need to be 100% ready even if you are planning to just get it done. Remember: The more running you tack on, the harder each individual session becomes.

Good Sleep: If you have an overnight break, make the most of it by getting some good sleep. It’s the ultimate recovery tool — anything over seven hours will have you ready to rock and roll in your next session. If you can, keep your compression gear on while you sleep, and keep some water by your bedside.

The Extended Warm Up: Each and every stacked run means more fatigue. You aren’t any less fit, it’s just that your fitness is further and further from your reach. You can still run well, but it will require some focus and deliberate preparation.

  • Relay Option: If you are looking to go fast in each individual leg, then you’ll need a solid 10 to 20 minute warm up. You can start very easily, but consider building up to a moderate pace and even including a few Strides to wake up those Fast Twitch muscles.
  • Long Run Option: The longer each segment of your event gets, the more important it becomes to build your warm up into the pacing of the individual run. In the Goofy Challenge, for example, you’ll want the first 6 to 8 miles of the marathon on Day Two to be at a very modest pace before bumping the effort up. Remember, anyone can be a rock star when there’s plenty of energy around; your goal is to still be strong at the finish when everyone else is fading!


Conclusion — Repeat for Success

Recovery is highly personal; there is no one right way or thing to do that helps all of us. Your best bet is to begin focusing on recovery right now, in your training. This will allow you to learn what does work for you (and when), ensuring that you’ll be 100% ready to handle any spikes in your training or racing schedule. Good luck!

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