Rest And Recovery

No matter how hard one works in training, you will only reap the benefits of that work with an appropriate amount of rest and recovery in relation to the workload. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how much physical stress you are able to put your body through, you won’t become stronger as a result of this stress until your body is given the time to recover.

Unfortunately, as endurance athletes, many of us are inherently bad at rest and recovery. The same aspects of our character which give us determination and motivation to push ourselves at a high level for a long time also make it hard for us to take as many breaks as we often need. I have been definitively bad at this in the past, and my current two-year hiatus from any kind of serious training and racing is almost certainly a result of too much training/racing with out enough rest and recovery.

I’d like to be able to say that my experience of the past two years has taught me to be significantly better at understanding when to rest. Perhaps it has to some degree, but this is certainly something I still struggle with. My experience has however taught me a lot about realizing how important rest is, and how much trouble we can get ourselves into if we don’t rest enough between periods of high physical stress.

There is a rhetorical belief in endurance athletics that we simply need to ‘listen to our bodies,’ and that if we learn how to do this we will always know what our bodies need. The problem with this, in regard to rest and recovery, is that we often have other factors which override what our bodies are telling us. It’s really easy to convince ourselves that we are listening to our bodies when we are emotionally looking for a day off. In this sense, we might even give ourselves some rest and recovery time that isn’t actually necessary. More commonly, though, we succumb to the opposite. We very much need a day (or more) off, but we are emotionally driven and nourished by our sport, and we convince ourselves that our bodies are telling us that we are plenty recovered from our previous efforts and ready for more. Our ability to reason and to analyze is really good at getting in the way of intuition.

How, then, do we weed through the confusion and really know when to rest and when to push? Again, I wish my experience of the past two years gave me a definitive answer to this question, but like most of us, I am still left to piece this all together one day at a time.

One thing that I have definitely learned over time is the importance of paying attention to how quickly I recover from any period of rest. Whether this is how long it takes within a run for my legs to feel peppy again after a long, hard climb or an interval session, or how long it takes to feel strong again after a hard race effort, there are things we can gauge that will tell us just how equipped our bodies are at a given time to keep pushing hard and long. If you have typically needed three days to feel fully recovered from an unusually hard workout but you now find yourself taking five or more days, it is almost certain that your body needs more rest and recovery. Even more than these five days. It is easy to assume that our bodies simply need as much time as it takes for them to feel strong again, but as this amount of time begins to grow longer and longer it is prudent to be aware that our bodies are begging for significantly more rest than simply the duration until we feel strong again. In the year leading up to my acute symptoms of overtraining which began in August of 2012, I went through a prolonged pattern of always feeling like it took longer and longer to recover from hard efforts. I thought I could push forward by simply giving myself however much time it took to feel recovered, but the fact that it was taking three times (or more) as long to recover from the same effort was most certainly a sign that I needed a lot more rest time. In going with the approach of simply listening to our bodies, it would seem logical to just rest until we feel strong and then push hard again, but we can gain a lot by paying attention to the duration of these cycles and realizing that much more rest is needed when these patterns become significantly and consistently skewed.

Another option we have at our disposal is the use of biofeedback. The simplest form of this would be to pay close attention to our heart rate. Resting heart rate is a decent indication of how well we are recovering from stress. More specifically, it’s valuable to pay attention to how long it takes our heart rate to get back near our normal resting rate after a hard effort. For our hardest efforts (races and extremely strenuous training runs), we should not expect our heart rate to return to our normal resting rate for 24 or more hours, but if we are having this same thing occur from everyday training runs, then we should be alarmed and think very seriously about prolonged rest.

Heart Rate Variability is even a better tool to use than basic heart rate. This measures the ratio between our heart rate during inhalation and exhalation. I have been measuring my HRV pretty much everyday for 18 months, and have been amazed at how much my physical ability ebbs and flows in conjunction with my daily test results. I, of course, have no way of knowing what my heart rate variability numbers were in 2011 and 2012, but I would be willing to bet that they were distinctly lower than they were in the few years leading up to that. Over the past 4 or 5 months as I have felt my body respond more and more positively to physical stress I have also noticed, for the first time since tracking it that my HRV seems to be gradually improving as I train at a somewhat consistent level. In the same way that it’s encouraging and satisfying to see things moving in this direction, we should also be sure to take very close notice when we see things moving in the other direction.

Despite my increased understanding of all of these factors related to rest and recovery, I still wake up nearly every day and wonder just how much physical stress is good for my body on that particular day. I’m not sure that anyone really ever knows this answer, but over time I do think we can gain the experience and knowledge to at least have a somewhat more accurate guess. At the end of the day we are still all guessing at this, but if we pay close attention to everything going on in our bodies, both during and after runs, and use the tools at our disposal I do think we can figure out what is best for our bodies more often than not. That’s not to say we are always disciplined enough to do what we know is right, but generally after we make enough mistakes we are willing to put aside the stubbornness and do what is best for our bodies. This is one I’m still working on, but with each passing setback I’m becoming more and more capable in this regard as well.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you rest and recover properly, or do you attempt to? What does your post-run/race recovery routine look like? And, how do you decide when to rest and when not to rest?
  • It seems that every endurance athlete has a story about not recovering or resting properly. When was the last time you improperly rested or recovered? What have you learned about that experience?