Have you ever wondered why you’re performing a particular workout and how to best adapt it to your needs? Wish you knew what to do to kick that annoying pain that pops up whenever you try to run faster? These are just a few of the questions I asked myself routinely as an average high school cross country and track athlete. I wanted to understand how I could best improve in the sport of running while staying largely healthy. My fascination with science in school led me down the path of studying how the human body moves, heals, and adapts so that I could begin to answer these pressing questions for myself. Many long days of pouring over physical therapy and exercise physiology-related material, running training information from the best in the world, and constant self-experimentation provided me with the base upon which I could grow my career as a sports physical therapist and running coach. No longer was I struggling with those questions, and as I continued to improve as a runner, I knew that my background in these different, yet complementary fields would enable me to develop a secret weapon for myself and eventually for others.
Today, after successfully guiding countless runners back from injury and helping many others achieve their performance goals, I’ve fine-tuned this secret weapon and believe that it provides me with a unique perspective for understanding when and how (and how much) we can push our limits and when we need to back off. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and learned tremendously from each of them. My mission of these blog posts is to share this perspective with you so that you can grow and succeed as a runner while sparing yourself from preventable setbacks.
One of the earliest lessons I learned was the value of true recovery in training. As runners, we often think that more has to be better. It’s an easy trap in which to fall as our sport values “hard work” and “dedication” above almost everything else. But there is a fine line between training smart and training like an idiot. For you, true recovery may be just one easy 3-8 miler between more intense workouts. For another runner, true recovery may be a day of complete rest, a cross-training day/easy run, and another easy run before his or her next intense workout.
Both approaches can be correct, but if you choose the wrong one for you at that moment in time for too long, you can become burnt toast pretty quickly. Note that various factors ranging from sleep to life stressors to age can impact your recovery time. I’ve had periods in my life as a runner when two days of 3-mile easy runs in the morning and 9 to 10-mile easy to moderate runs in the afternoon served as true recovery for me. Today, between providing excellent service to our patients and clients at FLASH Sports Physical Therapy & Performance Center, growing our brand, and my personal life, true recovery may be two to three easy 3-8 milers and sometimes a day off.
I’ve utilized heart rate monitors and followed various rules of thumb to help guide my recovery at points over the years, and the most important insight I’ve gained from my experiences and these tools is to simply listen to my body. Now, of course, listening to your body is easier said than done. But, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know if you need to adjust your training. Sometimes you’ll know as soon as you wake up; you feel absolutely exhausted and dead-legged, and getting through your day itself is going to require a tremendous effort. Prescription: err on the side of an easy day or day off. Other days you may not realize your fatigue until you begin a run or faster workout. Brian Sell and I always tell the runners participating in our coaching program that if they are having trouble hitting times or paces that normally would not be a struggle for them, then they should back off and let us know. Conversely, sometimes you may find that you feel better as a run or faster workout progresses; in most cases, this observation is a sign that you can keep going, so take advantage of the opportunity. The key is to be flexible with yourself and to take your training day by day. This ability to skillfully listen to your body won’t be mastered overnight, and you most likely will make a few small mistakes along your journey, but once you’ve come close to understanding and being able to implement your true recovery in training, you’ll begin to experience the rewards of more injury-free running and faster times.