The Three Rs

Running, rest and recovery: getting the balance right.

We’ve pretty much all done it at some stage in our running careers, or, to be more precise, we’ve overdone it. As runners we are generally OK at recognising if we have pushed too hard in a single training session or gone off too fast in a race. We do it, we feel awful at the time and most likely for a while afterwards too, but we get over it and we vow never to do it again. Until the next time it happens, that is. What we are not so good at is looking at the bigger picture, and the balance within it of running, recovery and rest, the three Rs. The better balance we achieve, the better runners we will be.

Running is the R we remember to do. We tend to have a plan of some sorts and we follow it. Whether training alone, with friends or at a club session, or taking part in a race, we run. That’s what we do.

Rest we are quite good at too. We lie down and sleep, maybe not for as long as we’d like t,o but we sleep. We put our feet up on the sofa and relax with TV, a book or some form of electronic device. It’s likely we spend more time doing this than we actually realise; I mean, who hasn’t sat down for 5 minutes to look something up on the internet and an hour later, still browsing, wondered what on earth they were looking for in the first place (unless, of course, it was running kit!)?

Recovery, though, is another matter. It tends to be the R that is either completely overlooked, or is haphazardly included when remembered. In some cases, and I include myself, that is because we don’t really understand what recovery is. We run a hard race, we put our feet up on the sofa for a couple of evenings and we sleep for England. Then we feel better. We’ve recovered, right? Well, no, we probably haven’t. Or, even worse, we go for a ‘recovery’ run. Hands up who has been for a ‘recovery’ run with other people, people who have really pushed the pace and everyone’s tried to keep up? Or a ‘recovery’ run that has started off easy but then half way around you’ve realised that, actually, if you sped up a bit it would be a PB for that route? Twenty minutes later you arrive home exhausted. Recovered? I think not.

So what is recovery then? Having been a runner for more than 13 years, if I’m totally honest, the penny has only recently properly dropped for me, and it has taken an injury to help me understand. Faced with the prospect of weeks, if not months, of being unable to run, I’ve been forced to look at the physical activity I do in a different way. I could have taken the easy option and rested with my feet up for a few weeks, but knew that would result in a severe loss of fitness and me going out of my mind with frustration. Instead, I decided to look into how I could use some kind of physical activity to help my torn muscle recover, while maintaining my fitness as much as I could. Cue weeks of agility, balance and co-ordination exercises to build strength in my calf and beyond, along with regular weights sessions at the gym, Pilates, aqua running in the pool to keep my run-specific muscles fired, and increasingly long walks outside to maintain my endurance. And as I have been doing these, the realisation has sunk in; I should have been doing these all along. What I have been calling rehabilitation work is actually the low-impact, low-intensity work my body needs all the time to allow my muscles and energy systems to recover from training, not just injury.

If I think back to 11 years ago, I ran a marathon, my second. I had trained very hard for it and it generally went well, well enough to secure me a sizeable PB. I was physically exhausted by the experience so took a couple of weeks to rest. Rest that is, although I thought I was recovering. After a couple of weeks I joined a group of clubmates to run a half marathon. I was well-rested and so had high expectations of myself on the challenging course. By mile 3, I was in pieces, my expectations were shattered, and I did the rest of the course in the back of the St John’s Ambulance that was acting as a sweeper van. Yes, I was rested but I had not recovered. Not realising that, what did I do? I rested some more; it was weeks before I started running again. It never occurred to me that some low-impact, low-intensity physical activity might have helped.

Fast-forward to now and things couldn’t be different. After 6 weeks of recovery/rehabilitation work, I’m starting to run again. I’m not running far – we’re talking a few lengths of a football pitch – but I feel great, physically great. I feel stronger all over but especially in my legs, and I have a better range of movement in my joints. It’s early days but I can see that recovery work has changed my running technique, for the better.

The balance of running, rest and recovery is going to look very different in my schedule from now on. Gone will be the days of running 5 days a week, no matter what I am training for. Pilates, weights and a weekly aqua run will have pride of place in my plan as my recovery tools. When I run, I’ll run hard or long, but there will be no ‘recovery’ runs. Quality, not quantity, will underpin all I do. Less will most definitely be more!