Some time ago a magazine asked me some questions about recovery for runners for a piece they were writing. Recently an athlete asked similar questions and got me to thinking about this topic once again. The topic is a critical one for runners due to their propensity for injury. But recovery is also of great importance to athletes in other sports. Here are the magazine's questions and my answers.
Q: How important are recovery days for recreational athletes? Is there a difference in recovery for someone training for her first 5k, and someone training for her first marathon?
A: There are two types of recovery - passive and active. Passive means rest with no physical activity. This is generally best for novices. Taking a day off from exercise will allow the novice's body (and mind) to recover and grow stronger. Working out will almost certainly be too fatiguing for the already tired novice athlete.
Active recovery is often better for the experienced and highly fit athlete. This means doing a short, low-intensity workout. The intensity part is easy. That means zone 1, for example, if using a heart rate monitor or GPS pacing device. A "short" workout may vary greatly between athletes. For someone training 12 hours per week "short" may mean 45 minutes. For another athlete who does about 4 hours weekly "short" is more likely something such as 10 minutes. Experienced athletes also need passive recovery days from time to time, just not as frequently as novices.
If in doubt about what to do - passive or active, 45 minutes or 10 minutes - be conservative. It's always better to err on the side of too little rather than too much when it comes to training.
Q: Why should a runner resist the temptation to run day after day, with little or no breaks?
A: It always concerns me when someone tries to set a record of running some pre-determined number of days without a break. That's not good for either physical fitness or mental health. Typically, something bad is going to come of this. I have always had everyone, even the pros I've coached, take periodic breaks from training. These breaks generally occur weekly, monthly, and annually. This usually leads to performance improvements for it’s during rest that the body grows stronger.
Q: On recovery days from running, is it OK for a runner to participate in non-impact cross-training, like swimming or yoga?
A: It's alright for experienced and highly fit runners to cross-train. In fact, this is the best option for most runners on a recovery day. Running is orthopedically quite stressful. The joints take a real pounding, especially when the surface is pavement. While the course surface may contribute to injury, several consecutive days of running have been shown to be the most common reason for running injuries. On the other hand, swimming and cycling are very low stress activities and can help to maintain cardiovascular fitness on an active recovery day. There are other low-stress modes of exercise that also may be used, such as stair climbers, cross-country skiing, and elliptical machines.
Q: What tools do you most recommend to aid in recovery?
A: The most effective ways to recover are sleep and nutrition. In terms of sleep, if one has to use an alarm clock to get up in the morning then sleep is insufficient. The solution is to go to bed earlier. Most of us need around 8 hours each night; some need more. As for nutrition, the first order of business following a workout for most athletes is carbohydrate along with some protein. Beyond the initial recovery period (which may last several hours depending on the preceding workout) the most critical nutritional components are micronutrients - vitamins and minerals. In their order of micronutrient density, the best foods are vegetables, seafood and fruit. Again, sleep and nutrition should always be the first considerations when recovery is needed. Other commonly used passive recovery methods are massage, stretching, floating in water, alternating hot- and cold-water immersion, icing, leg elevation, compression stockings, pneumatic compression devices, and others. The benefits of some of these are not well-established by research, but all of these are commonly used by athletes of all abilities.