Two Ways of Thinking About Recovery (One is Wrong)

I love it when my training diary goes “Aaaaaaaaaah.”

Outstanding run. Showed the value of FULL RECOVERY. Felt lousy in a.m., but went to the gym anyway and had a hard workout and felt increasingly good. Drove to the Baylands to run. Legs were feeling the heavy deadlifts a bit at first, but then they just wanted to run and run. Ran the last 20 minutes at 79% to 85%, relaxed and easy, with endless gas in the tank.

I’m always amazed to realize how much faster and easier I run when I’m FULLY recovered.

There appear to be two thoughts about recovery. One was typified by a remark that the coach of one of the country’s biggest running clubs made to me 15 years ago. I was 53, training for a marathon, and I told him I was only running every other day. He said, “No — you won’t be tired enough.”

Steve Jones, the former world marathon record holder (2:08:05) and winner of Chicago (1984), London (1985), and New York (1988), said that a runner who expects to rise to the elite level must be prepared to go to bed tired and get up tired every day for 10 years.

This view holds that improvement happens when we put our bodies in a state where it never quite recovers. The body never quite finishes its “homework” — we never allow ourselves to have the experience of running fresh, except possibly during races.

The opposite view asks, “If we never fully recover, how can we get the best results from our training? If we don’t let the body repair and get stronger, we can’t possibly improve as much as we would, if we let the body rest and recover fully. In this view, full recovery means maximum recovery and improvement.

Which is right?

I believe in hard training. I felt wonderful on the run I described in my diary entry. I suspect it was partly because I ran immediately after a gym workout where I really “stretched my edges.”

I woke up in the morning feeling crappy, though I wasn’t really sick — probably it was something I ate. At the gym, I ran large amounts of energy through my nerves and muscles. And when I arrived at the start of the run, my body was awake and ready. It was primed for generating energy.

Energy is the killer. It’s the secret of fast running, and enjoyable running. The more energy we generate a — at the right time — the more energy we can generate.

One of Arthur Lydiard’s superstar runners — I forget which one it was — went through a phase where his performances sagged. Lydiard, who was a highly intuitive coach, recognized that he didn’t need more rest — in fact, he needed to generate more energy. So he had the runner do the famous hilly 22-mile Waiatarua route two days in a row. The extra effort jolted him out of the slump.

Lorraine Moller’s coach for several years was her former husband, US Olympian Ron Daws. He insisted that she do a tough long run once a week. When she cut the run a few miles short one week, he insisted that she go out the next day and do it again. Moller credited that effort with helping her reach a new level of physical and mental toughness.

Yet, for normal training, Moller and Lydiard believed in complete recovery.

I guess the point is, “Both systems are right — at the right time.

Rigid rules in running are a sure path to failure. My spiritual teacher says, “True teaching is individual.” The problem with most religions nowadays is that they follow an older model that was appropriate for a more materialistic age, when people were expected to conform to rigid institutional standards of belief and behavior, regardless of their individual spiritual development.

It worked in its time, but was also a prescription for hyprocrisy — “If I’m not good enough, I’ll pretend that I am, and see if I can get away with it.”

We’ve entered an age of energy-awareness, and a more sensible approach now is what my teacher calls “directional relativity.” We’re all shooting for the same goal — to increase happiness and escape sorrow. Yet some of us are a bit farther along. The best way to make progress is to “stretch” at our own level. Nothing is accomplished by doing someone else’s workout, in religion or running. It’s a big problem with group runs — as Lydiard put it, the faster runners get a good workout, but the slower ones get overtrained. In training, the individual is everything. Training needs to be adjusted individually.

That’s the special contribution of great coaches like Lydiard and Bill Bowerman — they teach principles, instead of rigid rules and schedules. Their training is energy-based. What’s right for a runner to do is always what gives him/her more energy.

I’m finding, at 68, that I need more recovery than I like to admit. I love to put in a solid effort during long runs and sub-threshold runs. But I’m realizing that I can’t do a 2½-hour long run at a “high aerobic” pace (just under 80% MHR) in the same week that I do a heavy weight workout at the gym, and a “sub-threshold” run (just under 85% MHR). It’s unfortunate — I’d love to do more — but it’s my inescapable reality.

I had a heavy-duty faceplant recently — the worst in 38 years of running. I believe I invited it by my own disharmonious training. I sent out vibrations of disharmony, and I got the results back with a bang. I was training too hard, and it was making things jangly. I was headed into a ditch, and the universe compassionately stopped me.

On the other hand, when I train harmoniously, I get a corresponding result. The true explorers of the world of Spirit — the saints — are unanimous in stating that everything is tied together. God will help us, if we ask, but if we try to circumvent the natural law, we reap what we sow.

The faceplant was a blessing. I really banged my knee, and for several weeks all I could do was hobble for an hour or less. In time, as I began to understand my error, and the need for harmonious, careful training in tune with the laws of my nature, the wise intelligence in the cosmos eased up in its discipline. Mary Ellen gave me a pair of knee straps that she had stored away somewhere (aren’t women marvelous?), and I’ve been able to run long without any pain.

Training is entirely about balance. It’s about nudging the body, not shoving it. We stretch just a bit past what the body is used to, then let it recover fully. Without full recovery, we can’t do those runs where we feel wonderful, and can really extend ourselves. I believe we get the most out of our training when we’re able to put the most energy into it. Am I wrong?

There’s a point where overtraining and under-training intersect. We need to find that point. Improving does require some challenging runs. When Steve Prefontaine was at Oregon, coach Bill Bowerman gave had him run hard fairly often, because he knew that Pre could handle it. But Kenny Moore, who placed fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon, needed a “hard-easy” schedule. Yet Moore needed a “brutal” workout every two weeks in order to improve. It seems we do need to jolt the body once in a while, to let it know that we want it to generate more energy.

How can we know how often and how hard we can safely run without getting overtrained?

It’s very simple: by experimenting. It probably isn’t required to have a major faceplant. But keeping a diary can help. Those occasionally outstanding runs, like the one I described in my diary, set the standard. If we aren’t having really good runs, at least occasionally, I suspect it means we’re doing something wrong. More often than not, it means we’re doing our “easy” runs too hard, and perhaps not running our hard runs hard enough.

Maybe we’re not putting most of our effort where it can do the most good.

I believe that first-time marathoners should focus 95% of their energy on the weekly long run. Trying to build up their mileage is a huge mistake, when they’re training for a first marathon. It’s a complete waste of time. Invariably, they find that running a bunch of 5’s, 10’s, and 15’s is inefficient. All it does is degrade their recovery, so they get much less benefit from the long run. Far better do a few easy recovery runs during the week — no more than 5-7 very easy miles — and not run more than 30 or 35 mpw total. For the long run, do a 15 one week and a 20-24 the next. That way, they’ll go into the long run fresher, so they’ll improve more. With more energy, they’ll recover faster, feel better, stay motivated, enjoy continual improvement, and be happy, successful runners.