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April 03, 2013

What is the Point of Rest When Training for a Race?

Written by Dena Evans

bench_croppedRunning a marathon or half marathon is by definition a long and difficult task.  After all, when we speak of anything long and difficult, we often refer to it as a “marathon,” or compare things completely unrelated to athletics as “marathons” instead of “sprints”.


Unsurprisingly, training for a marathon includes a wide variety of lengthy tasks, the difficulty of which make the journey arriving at the starting line at least half the battle.  Mentally, runners can be so committed to the audacious adventure that rest and recovery seem like cheating or wimping out.




Hard workouts and rest are like a Rorschach test for the body.  The outline or fitness created by all the hard work is defined by the shape it has created for itself, but the shape we see is also dependent on the negative space shaped by the remaining parts of the picture.  This is the rest and recovery.  If the rest portion of the picture isn’t well planned and defined, it makes it difficult to see the shape it has left.


From what are you recovering?

The motions of running require a great deal of eccentric contraction of the muscles.  That is, a muscle working in the lengthened position.  This type of demand, particularly over the repeated requirements of thousands of strides, causes a lot of trauma to the cells of muscle fibers, which break down and need to regenerate.


Among other effects, running hard also results in a sharp increase in the production of the hormone cortisol.  This hormone, which appears in a response to the physical stress of the quality workout, also suppresses the immune system, which may take a full few days to return to normal after a hard effort such as a race or a workout that breaks new ground.


How long should recovery take?

Over a period of time with adequate rest, the body adapts to the mechanical stressors by learning to absorb and consume more oxygen, synthesize more glycogen, absorb more amino acids, and more.   As the muscles are broken down in tiny little traumas, blood flow aids in bringing reparative ingredients to the site of these traumas.  This blood flow can also bring inflammation.  All told, plan on about 24-72 hours for the cycle to result in a muscle prepared to forge more new ground.


The soreness often felt on that “second day” is also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.  In the long run, this process results in an adapted muscle ready to go farther, go faster, or maybe even both.  However, if a runner repeatedly breaks down a muscle that is not ready once more for heavy work, a cycle of degradation without regeneration will almost always lead to an injury or an eventual period of recovery longer than would have occurred if regularly scheduled recovery had occurred along the way.


Notice how your runcoach schedule will not offer you three consecutive calendar days where you run a track session, then a tempo run, then a long run.   Life’s difficult weekly agenda might encourage back to back workouts, but it is almost always advisable to leave at least a 48 hour period between the toughest days of the week.


Does everyone need to rest the same amount?

Age, gender, experience, volume (30 miles per week or 90 miles per week?) are all variables which may affect how much time is advisable to wait between hard bouts on the schedule.  If your performance falters repeatedly on the workout following a particularly difficult challenge, it is better to organize the schedule to allow more rest in between than to dogmatically hold on to your current layout and risk injury or prohibitive fatigue from pushing too hard too close to the last time.  Likewise, if you repeatedly catch a cold or have a similar repeated response to upping your mileage or completing a sequence of very taxing runs, consideration of additional recovery is important to allow the immune system to do its job and keep you on the path toward race day.


Does recovery only mean sitting around?

Certainly, sleep and rest can help speed the regenerative process, but recovery is also when you remember to bring a snack for after the workout and can replace carbohydrates and proteins immediately.  Recovery is when you roll and stretch to leave the challenged muscles loose and in the best position to heal.  Recovery is rehydrating and replacing electrolytes both during and after a workout or long run.  All of these proactive things can help speed the time you need before advancing out the door again for the type of epic run or workout that makes marathon and half marathon training special.  Not every runner recovers at the same rate exactly, but rest assured, all runners do indeed take a rest.  Our job is to help you along the path that includes rest that is planned so the next training and racing vista can remain in view.




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