Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Resting, Running, and Rhetoric

How do ultrarunners (or any athletes who go through vigorous training) know when/how much to rest?

As in politics, sports, and life in general, athletic training/racing has all kinds of rhetoric that gets wrapped up in the mix. An example of this is the notion that our bodies will tell us when we need rest. This is a bit of rhetoric that I have been trying to prescribe to for most of my days as a runner. It seems like such a simple thing. So much so that I've never actually thought much about it, and I'm certain that I've even told others that this is how I know when to rest. The problem is that in the case of ultrarunning this couldn't be further from the truth.

In this manner it reminds me of the idea in baseball that a runner should never dive into first base because not only is it potentially dangerous, but also that you actually get there faster by running through the base rather than diving for it (something about losing forward motion by coiling up for the dive? Even though with every stride we basically coil up as we bend at the knee and ankle). For most of my childhood (in which I always played baseball) I simply accepted this as the truth because every coach and all announcers on TV would always point this "fact" out. It never occurred to me that it could be any other way until one random day as a young adult when my brother and I were watching a game where a player dove into first base and the announcer went off with the typical bottled rhetoric about the stupidity of doing such a thing. This time something went off in our minds though and for some reason we just didn't really trust the rhetoric anymore. We talked about the reality that probably none of these coaches or announcers who always said this had ever actually done any research to back up these claims, and that in all likelihood this notion came about decades ago and was simply passed on as "fact" without anyone really even thinking much about it, let alone testing it. A few minutes later we were out in the yard with a stop watch, a tape measure, and an old glove for a base. We measured off 90 feet and my brother ran while I timed. I don't remember the exact times but what I do remember is that after about a half dozen tests both ways his fastest time without diving was slower than his slowest time with diving for the base. In other words everything that we'd ever been told about this notion was wrong, and to this day I still get annoyed when I hear an announcer on a game mention this "fact" about it being stupid to dive into first base.

Anyway, back to running. The most obvious problem with this notion about our bodies telling us when they need rest is that our bodies don't "speak" such a clear language. When I'm in the midst of serious training (100+ miles per week) I often feel like my body is telling me that it wants rest everyday. How do I know though if it really needs rest or if it's just telling me that it's going to need to have a nice long warmup before it's really ready to go strong? The question is how do we tell when our bodies really need rest and aren't just telling us that they want the rest? For the most part this only applies to those seeking to get the highest level of performance out of their bodies, not so much to those running simply for recreation/general fitness. In other words, the reason we have this dilemma is that we're not training with the intention of our body feeling as strong as possible throughout our training but rather with the intention of our bodies being as strong as possible for a specific event at some point in the future. Thus there are days that you simply have to go out and struggle through fatigue that has accumulated from previous days. You're not always going to want to run every day, but on almost all of these days you will need to or you'll never get as fast as you otherwise could have.

At some point we do benefit from days off, but I really don't think that our bodies are as precise at telling us this as we give them credit for. Rather we have to have a mind that takes over and forces us to grind out a couple hours of running when our bodies are saying that they just want to sit on the couch and sip coffee.

None of this answers the question of how we know when we really do need a day off though. For me I don't feel like there is any specific answer. I think it's something that we have to slowly learn over time. Certainly if my body is saying rest for several days in a row then I know something is up that I should probably be listening to, but otherwise I tend to just get out and grind out some mileage, knowing that my body will almost always feel better after my run than it did before it. When I'm really in good shape I pretty much don't take days off, but that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of days (typically about one in every 7-10 days) when my body is telling me to. Usually with an active recovery day or two though my body feels great again and over the long haul I think this is more beneficial than a day off would have been.

I'd be interested to hear the opinion of other competitive endurance athletes on this idea... Obviously different people subscribe to (and likely need) very different ideas about training techniques, including rest. How do you all feel about the importance of days off vs. active recovery days?


Anonymous said...

Good stuff Geoff. I would say the only cliche that is true is the fact that everyone is different in regard to recovery. I don't think it's any coincidence that some of the best ultrarunners the world has ever seen have done so by racing very few ultras (1 per year or everyother year) This would take great discipline for most, but I would agree that this would be the ideal setting if one were looking to have a breakthrough performance. Some of the worlds best who raced or race with this philosophy were/are the great Bruce Fordyce, which he describes in the book Lore of Running. Furthermore, runners like Barney and Janice Klecker of Minnesota. Barney had the world 50mile record for awhile which I think averaged a pace of 5:45. Howard Nippert is another good example, followed by Bernd Heinrich who was truly a firm believer in one race a year. However you also have runners like Ann Trason and Yianis Kouros who defy recovery clearly showing that every mind and body is different. I think Ultrarunning is a sport of over indulgence in many respects, whether it's the racing, training, etc.. Sometimes I think runners want the best of both worlds by being both competitive yet race as much as they can. I need to be competitive and in the short time that I have been doing ultras I have found the type of training that works best and I feel I can be competitive if I run 3-5 races a year depending on distances, which is plenty good. I no I would not have as much fun if I were running 10 ultras a year.

As for feeling tired. I agree most of it is mental. In the middle of Heartland 100 this year I was harboring the black dog for about 6-7 miles, but it was just a mental thing. Although my legs were tired, they could still keep going at a good pace even though my mind probably wanted me to do otherwise. You just kind of zone out, get comfortable in a rythm and just keep cranking. You know this.


Anonymous said...

I also feel and most of the legends I mentioned above, is that more ultrarunners could spend more time running shorter races and speedwork. I think some ultra runners feel as if their is a fork in the road in regard to "ultras or bust". I love running shorter races. They just burn differently. Besides 10km and 1/2 marathon for example have never been short in my mind. They are still every bit as challenging.


Anonymous said...

Great post Geoff. You're finding your voice...

I look at recovery a bit differently. If I've just done a 24 hour race well it's a given I won't want to touch a bike for at least 2-3 days. That's the only time my bodies signalling seems to work ;) Other than that, I modulate daily/weekly training such that I know apriori how much recovery/rest I'll need, and typically that is very little. It all has to do with modulating acute training load within the bigger picture of chronic training load.

The key aspect of training I've always tried to understand is the response curve - how does the body respond to a given dose of training, what is a dose, what's the timeline, how to get it all just right for performance on a certain day...that led me down the path of using power meters (on bikes), and I became a beta tester for the performance manager, This is a tool that helps one answer those questions. In a nutshell, the body responds like a swiss watch. The key aspect of recovery for me is proper training modulation, diversity of training, and then there is not a big need for taking time off.

2-3 times each year I end up taking a week or so off just cause, or work deadlines or broken bones...that must be my failsafe mechanism when I've been deaf to my body's signaling for too long!

There's another performance modeling tool made mostly for triathletes but could probably be great for runners at The software is called raceday. Performance modeling, per se, is not new, but to have the algorithms in software available to the masses, well that is very new (and exciting).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Geoff, for starting a great discussion.

Personally, I feel the NEED for days off should be avoided. That is, I believe that needed days off are evidence that the chronic loading stress is outweighing the body's ability to recover on consecutive training days. I wish I knew more about how the efficiency of recovery changes with respect to chronic load so that I could go into greater detail and support my belief with physiological facts but until then I base it on agreeing with the universal advantages of consistency. In any system (mechanical, biological, etc) things are optimized when opposing forces are consistent and balenced. Granted, our goal is change, but this principle is still just as applicable in the sense that we seek positive adaptation - which is in of itself is very much a system.

This principle appears to be used with world class distance runners. I'm talking about sub 27 minute 10k runners. When I first got a chance to see some of their training schedules, I was shocked to realize that their most demanding days really were not that much more difficult than the average. And days off were rarely used.

Because of this I favor a very consistent loading schedule. And not only should it lead to smoother (and more rapid) adaptation but if and when overload occurs it is easy to look back to pinpoint that limit since it was so gradual. For example, let's use a simplistic model. A runner seeks to build a base to become comfortable with 10 mi/wk but currently they are only used to 5 mi/day. That runner decides to increase daily mileage by one mile per day every month. After the first month, the runner is comfortable with 6 mi/day and accordingly moves to 7 during the second month. But during the second month the runner starts to feel increasingly tired on consecutive days, all the while running 7 miles no matter what. By the end of this month the downward trend has continued so it can be said definitively where the limit exists - between 6 and 7 mi/day. This is, I believe, the second advantage of consistent loading. We can be much more precise in our planning to better optimize our adaptation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Geoff,

As for the baserunning, the Mythbusters tested that theory out and found it true, though I guess it depends on where you hit the dirt.

Anyway, onto running and recovery. When engaged in serious training, I use a heart rate monitor. I will check my resting HR daily for a couple of weeks prior to starting, in order to establish a baseline. When after training my HR falls well below that line, I know that I am not recovering well enough and it is time to take a break.

Google training with heart rate, there is a lot of great information out there.

IMO fatigue is too variable to be reliable.

Hone said...

I just train all the time and feel like crap all of time. Maybe that is why I suck so bad. Hopefully one of these years my body will adapt and then I will pop a good one!!


Anonymous said...

I'd like to clarify the second part of my earlier comment.

If there is a time required for definitive feedback from one's body of whether or not it was adapting to a given chronic load or not - let's call this Time of adaptive feedback (Taf). And a time interval between increases of chronic load - let's call this Time of load increase (Tli). Then, if Taf is less than Tli, a precise limit of what the body is able to adapt to may be accurately estimated.

So my theory says that if we continue a consistent load long enough to receive clear feedback of whether the body will adapt or not we can locate the best amount of training.

AJW said...

Hey Geoff,

Thanks for the great post. I love the sliding into first base analogy!

I am more in the active recovery camp than the day off camp. However, during the six months every year between August and February I find that work and family issues impel me to one day off a week. It's just the way it is. Interestingly enough, the run after the day off is almost always a slog. Then, when I get in my focus mode leading up to WS I never take a day off and I always have more energy. I also think that the rhythm of the year and issues like daylight and weather come into play as well.

FixieDave said...

When ever I have a day off it is such a slow day the next even if I just 15-20 cruising miles on a rest day I feel much better on the next days ride vs being a sloth for a day.

Anonymous said...

You should check out Scott Dunlaps current blog entry. It is an interesting topic regarding stress and performance.


Dave said...

My opinion is also heart rate driven.

When well rested, I wake up with a heart rate around 48. If its the day after a hard marathon (or more), I wake up with a heart rate closer to 60. When I find a morning where it drops to 50 - I'm ready to go.

Matt Hart said...

i have so many opinions on this i'll shoot for the low hanging fruit. resting heart rate is a great indication of two things a) your getting sick or b) you are over trained.

it kind of a pain to take every morning but it's a glimpse into how your body is working and reacting to stress. i think i'll start taking it again so i know when to rest. =)

great discussion.

Speedgoat Karl said...

I think alot of us would benefit from rest, instead of just continuing to push the rest? It's all about training just under the level of being tired. Once it's tired, I rest. No need for a heartrate monitor to tell me when I'm tired, I can feel that. Everyone is different, and we all have to figure out what works. That's the glory of all of this, it's an imperfect science. Just like avalanches. You can do all the tests you want on that 36 degree slope, but it still might slide. I still need rest from the AT, but still training just below the level of tiredness. Any of this make sense...not really, I guess I'll just go run!

Julie said...

I'm not elite, but here's my opinion: Optimal rest, I don't know. I do know I absolutely should rest (not that I always do) when the rest of my body starts falling apart, not just the running related stuff. If I've done months of hard training, and I start to lose the ability to handle any kind of stress without over-emotional reactions - work, other physical activity, personal life, etc - I need to rest. Other signs of long-term rest needed: really low blood pressure, dizziness all the time, sleeping through every race I've scheduled in the last few months...
In terms of optimal performance, so far it seems like if I can rest just enough to avoid any of those kind of problems, my race times are the best. Its a fine line.

Anonymous said...

Just a comment for all those who train hard and never give themselves a chance to rest. If you never give your body a chance to recover from the stress of training and racing, then you A- are setting yourself up for possible injuries that may be avoided by recovering and B- will never reach your full potential as your body is never 100%, but some level lower trying to recover from the last effort.

Think of an analogy like intervals. Towards the end you are starting your next interval before fully recovering from the last one, and your performance suffers (slows down, gets shorter, etc)
Never resting doesn't make you tough, studly, or someone who likes to suffer. It makes you slower and more prone to injury.

Just some food for thought...

Anonymous said...