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How to recover well

Today’s blog is all about recovery. As I write, I am ten days into the recovery period from my Bob Graham Round - so it felt like a good time to talk about how to have a good recovery. The recovery period is maybe the poor relation of the training cycle - we put lots of effort and attention into the big weeks of the training plan, but how can we bring the same level of focus and excellence to recovery?

Unsurprisingly, the key features of recovery are quite similar to good practice during training anyway! The body is expending a lot of energy during this time in repair. Even if you don’t feel sore, there is a lot happening on a cellular level. You will also have a lowered immune system, making it more likely that you pick up a bug if you start adding extra load to the body too soon.  To help the body along the recovery journey, make sure you are getting plenty of good quality food with an emphasis on protein, plenty of hydration, and plenty of sleep. 

You can also help recovery by getting blood flowing around your body. This helps with the repair process. Active recovery doesn’t need to mean going for a run! Cross training activities such as walking, swimming or cycling work well, kept at a low intensity. I always aim to go for a short, gentle walk the day after a big event, to start blood flowing, and start to shake off any stiffness. 

Finally, use some of the time you would have been running to stretch and to foam roll.  If you don’t normally include this in your routine, recovery is a good time to try things out and do some research - spend time with the foam roller to figure out where your personal tight spots are, and research some stretches that will target these. 

How long should we recover for? I think most runners tend to jump back into heavy training earlier than perhaps we should. It’s natural - we love running! And most of us undertaking big events are to some degree type A personalities who are keen to push ourselves and make progress.  We need to resist this tendency - in the long run, going back into heavy sessions before we’re ready will be detrimental, not beneficial.  Recovery time is personal, and depends on the runner, your normal volume, your experience, and the event you’ve just done. As a very rough guide, I suggest two weeks of easy running after a marathon distance or upwards. After this, an experienced runner can start to include some light speed work, and return to full training after around a month. After an ultra distance event, or your first marathon, I’d suggest taking at least a week fully away from running, before returning to easy mileage only for a few further weeks. Please don’t take these suggestions as gospel; your recovery is individual to you, and you have to be guided by how your body is feeling, as well as your training history. 

If we’re spending a month or so in recovery, we’re going to have some excess energy. Rather than sitting around wishing we could go for a run, there are productive things we can do with the energy. One obvious task is to plan the next training cycle. That allows us to get excited about going back into training, and we’ll have time while the running load is lower to make an excellent plan. 

Another strategy I recommend to everyone in recovery is to implement a habit you wish you already had. For a lot of my runners this is strength training, or stretching and foam rolling. It could also be planning and cooking new meal ideas.  These things can get squeezed out in a heavy training block, but while you’re in recovery you have the mental energy to focus on building a habit. For example, if your recovery target is to visit the gym once per week, by the time you get back into full training this will have been a routine for a month, and be much easier to maintain than if you tried to add this new habit at the same time as going back into the new training block. 

One final tip is: enjoy it! Yes we love to run, but there are other things in life we love to do too. Use the recovery period to give some attention to neglected hobbies (or neglected friends and family!). Maybe the garden needs some attention, the spare room could do with painting, or you just want to sit with a book and switch off. Lean into the benefits of recovery time and enjoy the moment, rather than wishing it gone. 

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