Give It A Rest
Greg McMillan, M.S.The lost art of recovering between training cycles.
I see a bad habit forming in many runners: the lack of a recovery cycle after their big races or racing seasons. Today, far too many are simply finishing one race (often a marathon) and immediately starting to train for the next one. You can get away with this a few times, but usually runners get burned out and leave the sport for new activities after doing this too often. The grind of always "training" weighs you down. Runners may also reach a performance plateau after a few races and fall well short of their true running potential, simply because they don't allow a proper recovery phase.
In fairness, I understand this drive to move from one race to the next. I love running, too, and there is nothing better than being fully engaged in training for a big race. But never taking a break ignores one of the most important principles that we learned from great coaches and athletes over the last century: Top runners require a regular, full recovery cycle.
Great athletes build annual breaks into their training year. Not a reduced week or two of training every now and then, but weeks of complete rest. They don't only rest, but they gain weight, too. Some add 5 to 15 pounds to their normally light frames while they enjoy time with their families, take vacations and generally do things they normally can't because of their training.
If you follow many of today's great runners, you'll see that they, too, take the time to get away from the sport. Nick Symmonds goes fishing after the track season. Bernard Lagat talks about getting "fat" during his downtime, and the Hansons require their marathoners to take two weeks completely off after a marathon.
How can they do this? How can great athletes allow themselves to get out of shape? How can they tolerate the downtime without worrying about the competition?
While we worry about losing our fitness level, or that the competition is training and we're not, these athletes know that planned annual breaks rejuvenate the body and mind in ways that outweigh losses in fitness. The worriers who plow through often take similar breaks, but rather than planned vacations, they are mandated by injuries, overtraining and burnout. Planned breaks take the pressure off -- you don't feel that your training is never-ending, jumping from one goal to the next. Science is discovering that the chemistry of the brain, the hormonal system and the immune system are compromised during hard training. Breaks rejuvenate these systems, allowing us to train better, more consistently and with more zeal across the next training plan.
Will you lose fitness? Yes. How much is hard to calculate and will depend on how long a break you take. But it's not about how out of shape you get, but about how recovered you are and how ready to attack the next training cycle.
Remember that the recovery phase isn't just the downtime, but also the time needed to rebuild mileage and pace. Many runners fail even when they do take time off, because upon their return, they jump right back into full training -- again feeling the need to "get in shape." You'll need to plan on three to five weeks of rebuilding to your full training load. I usually start at 50 percent of full mileage, then increase 10 to 20 percent each week (with a recovery week of lower mileage every two to four weeks) until I'm back to 100 percent. Use common sense and build back slowly.
In the end, what's the rush? A few weeks of downtime never ruined anyone's running career -- quite the opposite.
I took nearly a month off after my last marathon. I gained a few pounds. I enjoyed some new hobbies and time with family. But most of all, I rediscovered the desire, motivation and passion that drive me as a runner, and I couldn't wait to challenge myself to do better. The next training cycle went even better than expected because I carried all the fitness from the previous cycle, plus my recharged motivation. I was able to run 2 minutes faster in the 15K than I had the year before. I'm convinced the recovery phase played a large role in this breakthrough.