What are Recovery Runs By Chaim Wizman
The single biggest training mistake that people make is their belief that the harder they train, the better they will get. Well, my friends, you are hereby placed on notice that the Law of Diminishing Returns is not just an economic principle. It is also true in the realm of exercise physiology. As a result of this erroneous pereception, many runners go out and run as hard as they can every time they hit the road and entirely ignore their bodies in the process. Inevitably, such runners wind up becoming overtrained, fatigued and ultimately, injured. In addition to the physical ravages of overtraining, there are also pyschological pitfalls. If you know that every workout is going to be a gut busting, lung searing experience that leaves you totally spent, your brain which naturally register a certain subconscious resistance to doing them, since the brain is programmed to avoid pain. You may be able to override the brain's reluctance to work hard for awhile but eventually the brain has all kinds of clever tricks to beat you into submission such as side stitches, sprained ankles, stomach issues, dizziness and a whole host of other running related "ailments" that may be nothing more than pyschosomatic symptoms generated by a brain that desperately wants you to back off. Therefore, it is crucial that some of your running be easy and enjoyable and not invariably associated with pain and hard work.
Furthermore, supremely hard efforts during workouts must be made very sparingly. For example, the world's top marathoners will not run more than two marathons per year. At first glance, this seems strange since these guys run up to 300 km per week, which means that they average a marathon distance worth of running every day. Why should it be a big deal for them to run, say, one marathon per month? The answer is that the maximal effort that racing a marathon at one's optimal pace entails is too draining on even a professional athlete (whose body is used to incredible strain) to be done more than twice per year. Our goal is to peak for Tiberias in January and not to waste our best efforts on our training runs. That does not mean, of course, that training should be a walk in the park. I strongly disagree with the theory that long runs are merely time acumulated on your feet and that pace is almost irrelevant on these long runs. That may be true if your objective is merely to finish the marathon. But if you want to run the marathon well, you have to train according to how you ultimately hope to race, while again reserving those rare supreme efforts for race days. This means that you should do plenty of tempo, intervals, fartlek and strides and our schedule certainly has generous doses of all of those things. But it does not mean that you go out and run a race every time you lace up.
All of this sounds wonderful in theory but how do you implement this in practical terms. The answer is by doing proper warm ups and cool downs and by doing recovery runs at the appropriate pace.
Warming up is critical for three principle reasons. One major objective is thermonuclear regulation: In order to exercise efficiently, you need to raise your core body temperature. Another is cardiovascular: As the heart shifts from a resting rate to the vastly increased effort necessitated by running, this increased effort should be made gradually to avoid shocking the heart. By the way, this is one of the reasons why you usually feel much better after 15 minutes of running than you do after 2 minutes. The heart has already adjusted to the new demands and has reached what physiologists refer to as a "steady state". The final reason why warming up is important is muscular: Cold muscles are short, tense and easily strained. The biomechanic principles involved in running, specifically with respect to muscle contraction in the legs, are incredibly complex. Tearing off like a bat out of hell at the start of a run is a recipe for a hamstring, groin or calf strain. So, how long should you warm up? It really depends on how old you are and on your body type. Some older runners need up to a half hour to warm up while others need no more than 5 minutes. Because everyone has limited time to invest in their training, I recommend the following rule of thumb. Start out very slowly and continue to run slowly for a full 10 minutes (e.g. a Narkiss or Dolev loop) before doing anything harder than a moderate effort. If you are going to be doing fast intervals, you need to be warmer so a 15 minute warmup is preferable and you should slowly pick up the pace in the last three minutes of the warmup to give your body a subtle hint of what lies ahead.
Recovery runs and cooling down work on the same principle. Endurance running causes microscopic tissue damage and miniscule muscle tears. This is no big deal and the body's natural metabolic processes easily heal these impacts. However, since if you are marathon training, you are going to be doing the same thing to your body again tomorrow, you need to help the body accelerate the healing. The way to do this is by increasing blood flow. Enhanced blood flow is facilitated by movement. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, you will recover best from long runs not by lying comatose on the couch with a box of Pringles but rather by doing an easy recovery run. How slow and how far should recovery runs be? This is also quite subjective. If I had to give it a specific number, I would say that your recovery pace should be 45 seconds to 1 minute slower than one's normal moderate training pace and be somewhere between 8-12 kilometers. However, there are a few caveats here. It is not true that the slower you run, the more you will recover. At some point, the unnatural biocmechanic process of running so much slower will throw your stride off and actually tax your muscles more, which is precisely the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. Therefore, you should run at the slowest pace at which your body can find a rythm. For most people, this is between 45-60 seconds slower per kilometer than their normal, moderate training pace. However, if you are dogging it every time out there, you would slow down less on recovery runs or risk an unatural stride. With respect to the distance of recovery runs, they can sometimes be effective with as little as 5-6 km, depending on what you are recovering from. We reduce the length of our recovery runs on Saturday Nights when we have run very long on the previous day and we also eliminate the strides. The best part of a recovery run is that theoretically, you should know immediately if you have done it correctly. If you have done it properly, you should feel less sore and more invigorated than you did when you started, which is certainly not the intense exhaustion you would feel after an interval session.