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Stephanie Bruce breaks down potential barriers that might be hindering a runner’s proper recovery.
A question from @runner_mama: How do you know what’s working or isn’t working when you can’t figure out the pattern of what’s inhibiting recovery?
Sleepless in Seattle
Recovery is probably the most underrated yet intricate piece of the running puzzle. So when you’re in a funk and can’t figure out why you’re not recovering, running can turn from an enjoyable experience to a dreaded source of frustration. Many people believe you gain fitness during your workouts, long runs and gym sessions. The real truth is you make all of your adaptations and gains during the times you’re not training—and more specifically, when you’re sleeping. You’ll often hear elite runners, like myself, explain how during a typical training cycle they’ll aim to sleep 9-10 hours a night, plus a 30-minute to 1-hour nap a few times a week. Of course, the first few months I had Riley, I didn’t come close to this average, which was why my training load was much smaller than normal, and I took more days off. I couldn’t stress my body running with sleeping chunks of 4 hours at a time and expect it to recover. However I know this to be a common occurrence among many runners with demanding work hours, kids who don’t sleep well or their own sleep disturbances. When I am working with an athlete, the first thing I find out before writing their training schedule is how demanding life outside of running is and how much sleep they typically get. Balancing the right load of training with how much you sleep takes time and has a learning curve. Poor recovery can be linked to a sleep deficit, therefore poor running results. A good way to look at a typical week would be, if you slept on average 7 hours a night and felt good on most training days, then had a tough workout on Friday, slept 4 hours that night and woke up very sore and felt lethargic most of the day, it’s safe to assume your sleep is correlated with your recovery. Since life happens and running sometimes takes the back seat, it’s best to scale back your training during a time where your sleep might be less than optimal. Even if you have a long run or workout scheduled for Sunday, but Friday and Saturday sleep was lacking, go shorter on Sunday, or push the long run back a few days.
Over-training can be another factor in recovery and often a mysterious and confusing one. The typical signs of over-training include getting slower on your easy days as the cycle goes on, disappointing race results when you should be getting fitter, struggling to hit paces in workouts that were easy a few weeks ago, waking up a few times a night, difficulty falling asleep and craving more carbs. (Similar signs might happen when you get your period, but that’s a whole other topic.) Over-training simply means your workout load is outweighing your rate of recovery. You are running too much, too quickly, and your body can’t adapt fast enough. Knowing appropriate paces for your workouts, sticking to your current fitness, and having a long-term approach are ways to prevent over-training.
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These are the factors that are the toughest to figure out when you’re not feeling recovered during training. Blood levels, iron, auto immune disorders, food allergies and a nutrient deficit make up the confusing list of reasons you may be suffering in your running. My advice is, if you’ve exhausted your energy looking into sleeping more, eating better, training less and, you’re still feeling the fatigue bug, go see a doctor. Often times a simple blood panel can provide you with a lot of data on what your normal levels should look like and what they might look like when you’re down in the trenches. A good tip is to gather a blood profile when running is going awesome and have a baseline for what your ferritin (iron), white blood cell, hemoglobin, and hematocrit levels are when you’re feeling awesome. When you suspect a problem, you can compare the numbers.
If all else fails and you still have no clue why you’re not recovering, a break from training can always do a body—and more importantly a mind—good.
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