Some of us run as a way of socialising, others run to keep fit, but the majority of runners, competitive or not will seek to get faster. It’s rewarding to see the improvement and know that physiological (and even mental) changes are occurring in the body allowing us to run further and faster. But often we can hit a plateau, or our improvement seems to slow down and this can cause us to doubt what we’re doing. Here are my thoughts on optimising training and recovery.
Optimising Training And Recovery
Often when it comes to training we always think we need to train more, train harder, train longer but this is not always the case. Sometimes it is a matter of switching up the training stimulus so your body has something new to adapt to. To be crude, the way an athlete gets stronger or faster is by damaging their body. Running at high intensities or long durations will damage the body. In order to prepare yourself for the damage next time, your body will try to adapt and get stronger.
More Is Not Always Better
The common trap people fall into (myself included) is thinking that more is always better. When I’m talking with my coach and sound like I’m trying to ask him to give me more work he says to me “Less is more.” Whilst I don’t believe this is always true, it can be in many situations. And when he says this, he means that I should go harder on the reps or workload I’ve been given.
Be Patient And Trust The Process
Another common problem is that in a world of instant gratification (everything we want is in front of us and within reach) adaptations within running or any sport take time. I’d say it can take as little as 2 weeks and as long as 6 weeks for most adaptations to start showing effect, but the real effect occurs when you’ve been training hard, consistently for 6 months or so and all the little cumulative effects of your training add up to improve your fitness greatly.
Because of this, often we fail to realise what training is causing what benefit. This is also due to each individual responding slightly differently to the training being given. Whilst we may understand the purpose of each training session, the adaptations which occur as a result of the session are not evident and I’d say pretty much impossible to measure and pinpoint. After several weeks of high mileage at a low intensity, a runner might start doing long threshold intervals and see a sudden improvement and attribute their boost in fitness to the long threshold intervals, but really the improvement wasn’t just from the long threshold intervals, but the base mileage training before that and the training that came prior to that.
Utilise Different Stimuli
Switching up the stimulus the body encounters within your training is a good way to try and facilitate further adaptations. Some methods of training to create a new stimulus could be:
- Pure speedwork (no longer than about 10 seconds with long recoveries)
- Circuit training using bodyweight and light dumbbells to improve core muscles and those involved in stability
- Weight lifting
- Introduction of a long run
However, when exposing your body to a new stimulus it’s important to remember that you will likely need more recovery than normal since your body isn’t used to it which brings me onto my next point…
Here’s the part that most people miss. It’s not the training which allows you to run faster or get stronger. It’s the recovery from the training. This must be emphasised so much and there are so many factors and variables that affect recovery. If we say that you spend 3 hours a day training then whatever you are doing in the other 21 hours of the day will affect your recovery just like the training. If you train hard then you will need to recover more.
Some of the variables affecting recovery are:
Whilst genetics are out of our control, there is a lot we can do to optimise our recovery from training. The single most important variable on that list is sleep. One of the reasons I believe sleep is so important is that for most of us, it takes up a third of our day. We sleep more than we train and I think this just goes to show how important is for the human body. Whilst many runners will try to wake up early to squeeze in extra hours of training, they could, in fact, benefit more from sleeping and allowing their body to better recover. The harder you train, the more sleep you need to properly recover so please, please prioritise sleep.
Diet is another component that we have control over. Most people eat a diet that consists of very high amounts of sugar, which will cause blood glucose to spike and insulin production to increase as a result which can actually act as a stressor towards the body and increase the need for recovery. The food insulin index can be used to know which foods will cause a greater insulin response.
I think that the most important macronutrient for athletes is protein since this is what our muscles are made out of, after protein has been prioritised I think we should try to get an ample amount of carbohydrates and consume an adequate amount of healthy fats, both saturated and unsaturated fat from meat, olives, nuts, seeds, eggs, avocadoes and more.
Micronutrients should also be emphasised as the minerals and vitamins found in nutrient dense foods will help the body to recover quicker from training. The more nutrient dense foods you can eat, the better – leafy green vegetables are a prime example of nutrient-dense foods whilst containing very little calories. Eating healthily to nourish your body becomes easier if you can establish healthy eating habits – that would be my prime recommendation to get better at eating to fuel your body.
Stress can be physical or mental. In this case, I’m mostly talking about mental stressors since the training you do will be the main physical stressor. How stressed you are mentally will affect the balance and production of hormones within the body. If you are stressed out you will most likely be in a sympathetic (active) state, but recovery occurs best in a parasympathetic (relaxed) state. It’s linked to the fight or flight response. If you can keep stress levels under control, you will be able to recover faster from any training you do. Don’t worry if you feel you can’t control your stress, it may just mean you need to give yourself a little longer to recover between training sessions.
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Further Reading: 11 Ways To Reduce Chronic Stress