Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Stepping Back

"Sometimes you have to back up to go forward"
-Bryan the elephant seal, Happy Feet 2

A lot of athletes have been talking about recovery lately. Hilary Stellingwerf posted an excellent blog on the importance of rest and recovery for optimal performance; Dylan Wykes walked his readers through his daily recovery routine; Eric Gillis shared his post-workout smoothie; Rob Watson mentioned he was reading more about recovery in this new phase of his marathon training. Coincidentally, I just finished reviewing a book on recovery by Sage Rountree, The Athlete's Guide to Recovery. In it, Sage Rountree discusses why recovery is so important and judges the effectiveness of a multitude of recovery techniques in a practical, scientifically-supported manner. It is an excellent, comprehensive guide that I would highly recommend to both elite and recreational runners. After all, recovery is essential for optimal performance as well as a healthy, long enjoyment of any sport.

There is a reason that the top athletes are taking recovery seriously. At the elite level, it can separate Olympians from Olympic hopefuls. In order to reap the benefits of the hard work you put into training, you need to rest and re-build, both physically and mentally. As my old varsity coach Dennis Barrett used to say, "You get faster when you rest, not when you train." This includes day-to-day things like taking in proper nutrition after a workout and icing or massage after a particularly tough session. It extends to weekly practices like spacing out workouts appropriately, sleeping well at night and taking rest days. It stretches further to annual breaks from training that can last from a week to a month, depending on the intensity of the year or a particular season. The common theme is that we must maintain a balance between building and resting on every level in order to be the strongest we can. The concept of stress, adaptation and growth is relevant in all realms of life and athleticism is a natural extension of this.

If we constantly impose stress without giving ourselves time to adapt, we will become weaker, sick, injured, or simply mentally drained. The amount of time it takes to adapt depends on your activity, your level of fitness, the intensity or length of the workout or season, and the individual. It is ultimately the athlete's responsibility to track how they are feeling to make sure they don't push their bodies over that fine stress vs. distress line.

Unfortunately, for most athletes resting is tougher to do than train hard. It opposes the athletic mindset, which is usually to work harder, do more and to become comfortable suffering. This attitude has been exacerbated by a modern culture that promotes action as the only means of achieving results. We tend to think that whatever our goal is, it is only being attained when we are working on it. We associate the opposite action - rest and downtime - as being unproductive or detrimental to our progress. When was the last time your boss said he was impressed by your ability to relax?! It is unfortunate, since it's those periods of downtime that make us stronger in the long run (pun intended).

In The Athlete's Guide to Recovery Rountree quotes Hippocrates, who observed centuries ago that "to do nothing is sometimes a good remedy." Oh, what wise words those are! As someone who has been struggling to recover from an injury for five months, I have been giving deep thought to my balance between stress and rest. I've not only looked over the last few months, but the months of training leading up to my injury and my years as a runner in their entirety. I am at the point now where I am willing to do just about anything to get healthy again. The last thing I want is for my shin to be the end of my running days. What would I do then? Become a professional running blogger who doesn't actually run? (I've thought about it, wouldn't be a very happy place for me)

What I've realized in the past few weeks is that I have to look at recovery not in terms of my one body part, or even as a runner, but as an entire human being. I have taken mental breaks from competition with periods of easy training. I have taken physical breaks of 1-2 weeks off running. I have taken days to entire weeks off exercise completely. But during those times, I have not given myself complete rest. I would do things like go out and party every day; my diet would go down the tubes; or I'd work 12-hour days to catch up on work. The commonality in my life is that I replace one stress with another. Physiologically, stress is stress. Your blood pressure increases, your heart rate goes up, you produce adrenaline and cortisol. Ultimately, stress at work takes a toll on your body as does a hard workout at the gym. Partying tires your body out in the same way. Not eating sufficient or nutritious foods will impose stress on your body too. Maybe this is common and perhaps some people can get by doing this. But last week I decided that I don't want to. If I want to give myself the best and fastest chance of a full recovery (and a fast future!), I have to take care of myself in a wholistic way. Reduce my exercise; strengthen my shin; eat well; sleep a lot; drink minimally; and avoid working more to fill my extra time. This may sound simple to most people out there, but I'm G.I. Jane people! For me backing off and giving in to real rest is very tough.

As most of you know I got my wisdom teeth out a few weeks ago and thought that this was the perfect chance for me to force myself to rest and get better. Yep. On a liquid diet! Oh Jane. Not surprisingly, I lost weight and probably became slightly malnourished (getting most of my calories from ice cream, nice). Although my shin felt better, the tendon didn't get any stronger and when I went back to exercise, it started to tighten up again. The key to (hopefully) curing tendinosis is to build strength back into the tendon gradually. Once again, the cycle of stress, adaptation and growth applies. Only with tendinosis, it takes a long time to adapt - I read somewhere that laying down new collagen matrix can take up to 100 days! That's over three months of patient strength-building before my tendon is strong enough to withstand any other additional stresses! There is no magic bullet for tendinosis, so my only hope is to build my strength and be patient and not rush into training too soon (as I did in December). In addition to strengthening the shin, I am reducing my cross-training substantially. I have no workouts longer than 60min, I am taking complete days off exercise every week, I am drinking less and am improving my diet. I weigh a good 6-8lbs less than I did a year ago, which I am sure has not been good for my recovery. I think that my new regime will foster the growth of a healthier, happier body - and hopefully a strong shin too.

(If not, I'm having a huge party and getting back on the vodka!)


  1. Great new mindset Jane!

    Very helpful perspective on training and life.

  2. Thanks Anon, I've received a number of PMs that suggest a lot of runners could benefit from a similar change in habits and mindset. I think we should start a support group, hahaha.

  3. A-m-e-n!
    I am bookmarking this post.

  4. HEy Jane, it's April. Where are you?