Get Over It! Recovery 101

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on recovery. The second article will include a continually expanding list of practical tips for shortening recovery time; e.g., actual experiences with dietary changes, supplements, non-running recovery days, etc.

When I began running ultramarathons, I took a subscription to Ultrarunning magazine and, almost immediately, groaned with despair. Looking at the race results, I saw the names of the same runners, month after month. Who were these super-runners, who could race 30 to 50 miles every two or three weeks, without destroying themselves? When I tried it — I ran seven marathons and three 50Ks in seven months with little tapering — I crashed badly. Then I discovered the frequent-flyer-ultrarunners’ secret.

I was running a tough double-marathon, the 1994 Sierra Nevada Endurance Run, climbing a steep hill, when I fell in beside Suzi Cope, a well-known ultrarunner who ran prodigious numbers of races; in fact, at the time, Suzi had run more ultra races than any other woman. I said, “You’re able to run such amazing numbers of races. How in the world do you train?”

She said, “I don’t. I just run ultras.”

The secret was out. The every-week-another-ultra crowd simply give their bodies tremendous amounts of rest, corresponding to the length of their races.

Like Mark Twain, who said giving up smoking was easy — “I’ve done it a thousand times” — I’ve learned about the importance of recovery the hard way, over and over again. In Fitness Intuition, I tell how I learned the lesson yet again:

“Think It Over.”

After six weeks of hard speedwork, stair-running at Stanford stadium, and mega-weight workouts — no surprise, I got injured. But the layoff would prove a blessing, because it gave me time to reflect on my goals.

Could I run without trashing my life? I was weary of mismanaged training. I longed for balance and harmony.

I prayed for guidance, and the next day I stumbled across a message that I’d saved on the computer, years earlier. It was from Eric Robinson, an ultramarathoner who runs amazing numbers of races. I once asked Eric how he managed to race so often. He laughed and said he would sign up for so many races, he’d often forget which one he was supposed to run that weekend, so he’d have to consult the spreadsheet where he logs his entries.

Eric told me he trains very little. Yet he races well, and he’s finished nearly all the major US 100-mile trail races, including Hardrock, the most difficult “hundred” of all.

(Just for fun, here’s the Hardrock course description. “ Just for fun, here’s the Hardrock course description: “The 100-mile race in Silverton CO in early-mid July has 33,000 ft. of climb at an altitude of 7700 to 14,048 ft with 11 mountain passes above 12,000 ft. Cutoff is 48 hours. Terrain is mostly trail, scree, snow, and tundra with many river crossings. Parts of the course are climbed with ropes on scree or snow at a 45-degree slope. Some night sections traverse the edges of cliffs dropping hundreds of feet. Altitude sickness and pulmonary edema are common among competitors. Weather: 15 F to 85 F with afternoon hailstorms and lightning possible.”)

In that old message, Eric credited his success to putting all of his effort into the training runs that really count. For an ultrarunner, that means the weekend long run, which for him, was usually a race.

Eric told me he might do several fast quarter-mile repeats on the track at midweek, but nothing more. He was essentially running just one day a week, but it was often a 30- to 50-miler. It was good training for an ultrarunner — though it might not work as well for, say, a 10K specialist or marathoner. (On the other hand, former US Olympian Jeff Galloway has coached more than 200,000 runners to complete a first marathon. His advice? Do no more than one hour of running, total, during the week. Save all your energy for the weekend long run.)

Eric’s Comments
My most aggressive mileage ramping occurred a couple years ago when my long run went from zero to one hundred in less than six months. (See chart below.) I believe that it succeeded because of the massive amounts of rest I got between runs (i.e., in 23 weeks, I ran only 36 times).

I started out trying to run at least two or three times per week, because at the time I believed that was the minimum for any training schedule. I started to make real progress when I abandoned this idea (week 8), and decided to run only once per week unless I felt exceptionally strong.

Yesterday’s run drove home the lesson about harmonious training. During the week, I had let my body become dehydrated, and when Saturday rolled around, I was feeling deeply wasted. Nevertheless, I was eager to begin my new training plan, and so I forged ahead and ran 4½ hours in the Marin Headlands.

I set out from Tennessee Valley and wandered along the coast to Muir Beach and Muir Woods, then trotted up the Dipsea Trail to Cardiac Hill. Arriving at the top, I stumbled off the trail and sat on a rock, thoroughly knackered, debating limply whether to press on to Stinson Beach or turn around.

A young runner came trotting up the Dipsea, and when he saw me, he walked over to admire the view. It was gorgeous—from Cardiac, you can see 15 miles north to Point Reyes, 15 miles south to Pacifica, and 20 miles west to the Farallon Islands. The runner said that he’d cycled up Mt. Tamalpais that morning, and I asked if he was a triathlete. He said yes, and volunteered that he had recently hired a personal trainer who told him to put 99 percent of his energy into the workouts that really matter, and that if he felt tired, he should simply skip the shorter “recovery” runs.

The universe had spoken twice of balance and harmony — first through Eric, and again through the young triathlete on Cardiac Hill. This time, feeling painfully battered, I drank the message deep into my cells.

How subtly our minds and feelings try to misguide us, playing upon the urge in us that impels us to do self-hurtful things, whether from pride, confusion, or fretful desire. And with what infinite patience the higher Self allows us to bash our heads into the wall, until we discover the humility to imbibe the next, precious lesson on the path to inner freedom.

Stay tuned for “Recovery Part 2: The Practical Side”.