After running 3:23 in his debut marathon, Aidan Hewison, a university researcher, set his sights on cracking three hours for the distance. It wasn't an unreasonable expectation: he'd run under 38 minutes for 10K and was close to 1:25 for a half-marathon. So in the build-up to his next marathon he ramped up his training by adding speedwork and hill repetitions, doing more long runs at a faster pace, and sometimes skipping rest days. The result: he managed 3:32 in his next outing over 26.2 miles. That didn't put him off and he redoubled his efforts and pushed harder still. Yet each year his marathon pace became slower. After running a disappointing 3:47 in 2003, Hewison hired a personal trainer, hoping he would unlock the secret behind his sputtering performances. The diagnosis? Inadequate recovery.
Like Hewison, most runners don't have a problem pushing themselves, but when you're focusing on building endurance and speed, it's easy to forget how important rest is. "It's when you're not running that the muscle rebuilds itself and becomes stronger," says Runner's World Medical Adviser Dr Patrick Milroy. "If recovery is insufficient, you'll break down more than you build up." Recovery is vital whether you want to run the race of your life or just make it to the starting line. Here's how to make the most of your down time.
If you stop seeing positive gains or your legs feel sluggish or especially sore, you're overdoing it. "Don't wait for aches or pains before you take a recovery day," says Milroy. "That's a sign of overtraining." Take at least one rest day per week and additional days as needed. Check your pulse for 60 seconds before getting out of bed. If it's 20 per cent higher than normal, you're due for a rest day.
If you're training for a marathon, your long-run pace should be one to two minutes slower than race pace. Alternate hard efforts (speedwork, hill repetitions, long runs) with easy ones: three- to four-mile easy-pace recovery runs, cross-training, or complete rest. Make your rest days count for more than just a day off by doing something you enjoy that you don't have time for while training. A film or a dinner out serves as more than a reward, because relaxation helps you heal. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that a distraction can lower stress levels and raise levels of cytokines, which are hormones that help tissue regenerate.
If you don't eat within 15 to 30 minutes after every run, you risk delaying your recovery for up to 24 hours, which leads to diminished performance, says Dr Leslie Bonci, a nutrition expert. In a recent study, researchers at Vanderbilt University in the United States had athletes consume carbs and protein immediately after exercise or three hours later. Protein synthesis was three times greater in the group that refuelled right away. Bonci recommends 50g of carbohydrates and 10g of protein after you exercise. Yoghurt and muesli, or an energy bar and carbohydrate drink will do the trick.
Baby Your Body
If you want to run like an elite runner, start acting like one. When Paula Radcliffe isn't running she does everything she can to speed her recovery. It would not be unusual to see her mixing her protein drink at track side after finishing an interval session or rushing home for an ice bath. Then there are daily sessions of physiotherapy and massage at the hands of Gerard Hartman and the half of the day she spends sleeping. A recent Canadian study put some of Radcliffe's methods to the test. Subjects performed sprint intervals on a stationary bike followed by a cold-water soak, a massage, or complete rest. When they repeated the interval session 24 hours later, the people who only rested showed a decline in performance compared with those who had the cold-water soak or massage. Ice baths and sports massages improve circulation and flush out waste products, reducing inflammation and soreness. A weekly sports massage is ideal, but those of us without sponsorship deals can do well with one every four to six weeks. Self-massage using foam rollers could be an at-home alternative.
|To restore your body to its pre-race state, recovery needs to start as soon as you cross the finish line. Here’s our post-race recovery guide.
|Time after race
|0-10 minutes ||Walk slowly. "It prevents blood from pooling in your legs, which can cause light-headedness," says Janet Hamilton, author of Running Strong & Injury Free.
||Drink 250-500ml of sports drink.
||Put on warm clothes. After a race, your core temperature will drop. The colder you are, the harder it is for blood flow to get to the heart.
||Refuel. Can’t eat? Try chocolate milk. It has a replenishing combo of protein and carbs and will go down easily if your stomach’s not ready for solid food.
||Stretch, focusing on hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors. Spend more time on your quads if a large portion of the race was downhill.
||Take a "contrast bath." Hamilton recommends spending five minutes in a cool tub and five minutes in a warm shower, repeating the sequence twice.
|Remainder of race day
||Refuel and relax. Eat carbs and protein. Drink plenty of water. Nap if you’re tired and don’t stay out too late at the post-race party.
||You’ll benefit more from a massage the next day. Most muscle damage doesn’t manifest itself with symptoms until 24 hours later.
|Weeks one to four
||Take one day of recovery for every mile raced. That doesn't mean complete rest. Just take it easy and do more cross-training.