Post-Marathon Recovery: lessons learned

Even I can't smile through overtraining.

Disclaimer: I’m writing this blog as much for my own good as for anyone else’s. We all need reminders of how important it can be to give ourselves a break from time to time.


Talking to my coach after the race, we briefly discussed the plan for the first week after. He asked “are there any recovery approaches that you felt like put you in a better place coming back than others?”

I thought for a moment and said “I think I just learned my lesson after our first one back in 2013.”

 

I was referring to after Twin Cities 2013. I had run a 2-minute PR and placed 3rd at the US Champs in one of the biggest breakthroughs of my career to date. I was on top of the world and impatient to keep capitalizing on my new-found fitness. So I twisted Terry’s arm into letting me run the Dash to the Finish 5k just 4 weeks later.

The Dash was an awesome experience, and I almost ran a track 5k PR on a challenging road course. Two weeks later I ran the 12k Championships and while it went okay, that was the final nail in my coffin.

The moment of truth came a week after that, when I returned to Van Cortlandt Park for the third time that season with the Rider team. On the same course where I had been flying across the fields and over hills earlier that fall, I could barely jog to catch the stragglers on the course. I knew I was toast.

 

I went straight to a local doctor to rule out the usual suspect. My iron was fine.

Next up I want to a sports doctor in Richmond over Thanksgiving break. He didn’t do any more tests. He took one look at the sad, defeated look on my face and said “you’re overtrained.”

He told me that for severe cases, it can take 6-8 weeks of doing nothing at all to fully recover. I listened and translated with a big grain of salt.

 

I knew that it wasn’t the easy running and jogging that hurt me. It was the harder efforts and the physical and emotional stress I had been through in the previous 4 months.

I had left my whole life at ZAP, moved back to my parents’ house in Richmond, worked 40-50 hours per week applying for jobs for almost a month, moved 3 more times to and within New Jersey, started 2 new jobs, quit one, and trained my butt off on top of it all.

He was right. I needed a break. But I wasn’t convinced that 6-8 weeks completely off was the only answer, so I made a compromise. I would take 4 days off and when I returned, I would adopt a new outlook for the next 2 months of training.

I used the same approach that had worked to slow me down on my easy days since college. Instead of viewing every run as an opportunity to gain fitness, I allowed myself to reframe recovery runs as an opportunity to jog when the only other alternative is not running at all.

So every run from Thanksgiving 2013 through January 2014, I approached as an alternative to a day off. I knew that what my endocrine system needed was a break from stress, so I took the stress out of running and allowed myself to jog without any pressure, expectations, or pace-shame. (That was a little tougher to do when I had to race Club XC champs 3 weeks into that time (see photo above), but you know what? Sometimes you just have to take one for the team.)

After that period, I started my build-up to Boston 2014. That buildup is still to this day one of the best I’ve ever had. It included some of the best workouts I’ve ever completed and ultimately led to another huge PR.

 

This combination of taking a mental break with non-training active rest is the same approach I have taken to post-marathon recovery ever since. Regardless of how important the next race may be, nothing is more important than allowing my body to recover from the incredible tasks that I have just demanded it to perform.

My post-marathon recovery rules for the first 2 weeks are as follows:

  1. Don’t run unless you really really want to *** and be careful here because compulsion is not the same thing as desire***
  2. Every run is approached as an alternative to a day off.
  3. The concept of “junk miles” does not exist. When the alternative is sitting on your butt, you can jog as slowly as feels good to your body and you will benefit more than sitting, and it will do so while still working towards filling in the hole of damage you’ve done.
  4. Keep in mind that 2 weeks completely off now is always better than 6-8 weeks off later.

That is simply what seems to work for me. If you are someone who needs 2 weeks fully off in order to achieve this kind of break, more power to you. If you need 4 weeks completely off after a super difficult cycle, great. Some people can’t find the intersection of rest and exercise. For many of us, it’s all or nothing. You just need to know yourself and do what’s right for you.

 

Mine is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we allow our ambitions and compulsions to put the cart before the horse – when we don’t check off the necessary tasks before we move on to the desired ones. The truth is that recovery is as much a part of our training and success as any other workout, weight session, diet plan, or mileage formula.

So in answer to Terry’s question, I recover best when I take a break not just from training itself, but from thinking about training altogether. I’ve learned my lesson and know now that you can’t rush recovery. It might work in the short term, but I know now that I will more than likely pay for my haste later on.

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