This post is part of a series on tips, workouts, and training for your best marathon. To catch up on the Marathon Mondays series, you can see the previous posts here.
Athletic training, especially the demanding training required for an event such as a marathon or triathlon, requires not just hours of exercise; your body also needs hours of smart and intentional recovery to gain the full benefits of hard workouts, get stronger and faster, and not burn out from overtraining. Without recovery, improvements will not happen. The gut-wrenching mile repeats, the challenging tempo runs, and the laborious long runs stress your cardiovascular system and your muscles; rest and recovery repair those systems.
What exactly is recovery? According to this article from Running Times, “recovery is the restoration of energy-producing enzymes inside the muscles, functional proteins, fat and carbohydrate stores, and the regeneration of the endocrine and immune systems.” Essentially, recovery involves getting enough fats, proteins, and carbs in your diet, getting enough sleep and active rest to keep your hormone levels steady, and giving your muscles time to repair the stressed and torn fibers.
So from the first day of training for any event, whether a 5K or a full Ironman, recovery should receive equal attention as the workouts. Recovery means proper care of your body, including sleep, nutrition, hydration, and rest days. So how do you optimize recovery during marathon training, other race training, or even just general fitness training? Follow these simple tips—your body and running will thank you!
Even elite runners have rest days scheduled in their training regimens. People complain on Instagram and Facebook about they don’t like rest days, but I embrace them. After six days of running, and some days working out a second time for strength training, I look forward to a day with no structured exercise. Mentally, it acts as a refresh button, and by the next day, I’m excited for another full week of training. Physically, a rest day completely lets muscles (including the heart) rest and repair. A day of less physical and mental stress lowers stress levels, which lets your cortisol levels return to normal. While cumulative fatigue is key in gaining fitness, a rest day prevents this fatigue from accumulating too much and turning into overtraining (which happens when you push your body too far, too fast, and too hard without enough recovery).
If you’re following a sound training plan or working with a certified coach, your marathon training will include cut-back weeks where you run less mileage overall. This decrease in mileage will frequently come from both shorter easy runs and a shorter long run. You need to increase your training load (which, for runners, is measured in number of miles run per week) and add additional stimuli such as race-specific workouts to improve your endurance and speed, but too much of an increase in training load can lead to overtraining and diminishing returns. In order to avoid an over-accumulation of fatigue, you need to schedule recovery weeks in your training. Recovery weeks involve enough running where you will not lose any fitness. Typically, a recovery week will reduce your mileage by 20-30% from the current point. Most training plans include recovery weeks every 2-4 weeks.
Healthy and sufficient nutrition is essential for athletic performance. Fats and carbohydrates fuel endurance exercise, while protein repairs stressed muscles afterwards. Additionally, when you are training for a marathon and running for hours on end, you need a good amount of quality calories to replace the energy expended. Not eating enough and not eating the right foods significantly impairs your body’s ability to fuel your training. As you increase your weekly mileage, be mindful to increase your calories as well. Many runners are worried about gaining weight during training, and this is a fair concern. Focus on consuming extra calories from nutritionally-dense foods, as these foods will give your body the macro and micronutrients it needs and satisfy your hunger more than a pan of brownies or a huge plate of greasy appetizers will. Healthy fats (nuts, avocados, chia seeds, fish), lean proteins (fish, beef, chicken, legumes, eggs), and complex carbohydrates (whole grain breads and pastas, rice, potatoes, fruits, vegetables) all will fill you up and provide you with the nutrients your body needs. Treats such as ice cream, cookies, beer, burgers, and pizza can even have a place in your diet, in moderation. If your body is craving a certain meal, it’s smart to listen to your cravings. I often crave bacon, burgers, eggs, or even fries after hard workouts, which is a sign my body needs salt and iron. I don’t always indulge in the burger, but I try to at least note what nutrients my body is craving and supply it with them.
It’s better to be overfed than underfed when you’re training for an endurance event. Being five pounds heavier than your ideal racing weight will keep you healthier and impact your running more positively than being five pounds underweight.
Eating immediately after your workouts is another vital aspect of marathon training nutrition. The optimal window for refueling carbs is 30-60 minutes after a workout. Even if you can only stomach a smoothie or a small snack, eating a meal rich in carbohydrates with some protein and healthy fat will restock your glycogen stores, restore your overall energy levels, and initiate muscular repair. Additionally, keeping your glycogen stores well supplied will keep your feeling energized and running strong throughout all your workouts and up through race day. This post-run nutrition is just as critical for your race as race day nutrition.
Dehydration decreases the amount of blood your heart can pump to your muscles with each beat. Less oxygen-rich blood gets to your muscles, which slows down your performance, and to your brain, which impairs your mental capacity. Thus, dehydration is equally detrimental during exercise and rest. During exercises, especially running, you lose water through sweat. In addition to your daily hydration needs, you must replace fluids lost during exercise. Sweat contains electrolytes in addition to water, so athletes benefit from sports beverages that include electrolytes to improve rehydration. I personally love Nuun Active Hydration, which provides all the necessary electrolytes with no added sugars or extra calories. I drink my Nuun immediately after running to prevent any dehydration.
In addition to high-quality nutrition and hydration, sleep is one of the most paramount facets of marathon training recovery. Without enough sleep, not enough human growth hormone is released to build and repair your muscles. Lack of quality sleep spurs your body to produce higher levels of cortisol, which undermines repair and impedes your body’s ability to store enough glycogen. So put away your phone, turn off the TV, head to bed early, and aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
While they are no substitute for quality sleep, due to the importance of the hormones released during the third and fourth cycles of sleep, naps will aid in recovery. Naps offer especial benefit on long run days, when your body is recovering from a strenuous effort, and you often have the time to sneak in a 30 minute nap on the weekends.
A major warning sign of overtraining is irregular sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, it could be due to an overabundance of cortisol or a fatigued adrenal system. This is a double-edged sword, as you need the sleep to recovery, but your body is too stressed to sleep. When this happens, it is more beneficial to cut back on your training than to continue at your current level of training.
Foam rolling is one of the best tools for treating sore muscles. It’s also a very affordable treatment, as a foam roller costs the fraction of the price of a massage and will last you for years. Foam rolling is a form of myofascial self-release, which works out knots in your muscles. These knots are formed when the fascia (connective tissue that wraps together your muscles) develop adhesions due to training, stress, muscular imbalance, and overuse. The foam roller breaks apart these adhesions, promotes circulation, improves range of motion, and pushes metabolic waste (which contributes to soreness and stiffness) out of the muscles. While it is possible to overdo foam rolling, a few short sessions with the roller each week will facilitate excellent recovery and reduce your risk of injury. For more information, check out this thorough guide to foam rolling for runners.
I firmly believe that running should not prevent you from enjoying the rest of life. Since Ryan, Charlie, and I love to hike, I will include other outdoor activities during my training. I emphasize lots of sleep, eating enough, and sufficient hydration to be able to train well for my marathon but also enjoy my weekends. It’s important, no matter how you choose to spend your downtime, to make sure you listen to your body; for example, after a long run and a few hours of hiking on Saturday, I spent Sunday just watching movies and working on the blog to let my body recovery.
If you drink, be mindful of your alcohol consumption, as too much booze can inhibit sleep and hinder recovery. A couple drinks does not cause a problem, but the day of a long run may not be the best day for a pub crawl. Be sure to drink extra water if you’re imbibing, since alcohol can be dehydrating.
Take time to mentally destress each day. Whether it’s playing with your pet, reading a book, or curling up with a glass of wine and your favorite show on Netflix, some time to unwind will decrease your cortisol levels. Overtraining is most likely to occur when physical stress from a high training load is compounded with mental stress.
Portland Marathon Training Week 3
Recovery played a huge role in training for me this week, as the Hansons plan stepped up to three key workouts (speed intervals, tempo run, long run) this week.
Monday: 8 miles on the treadmill, 1-2% incline. 2 mile warm-up, 8 x 600 meters in 2:36-2:38 (7:00/mile pace) with 400 meter recovery jog, 1 mile cool-down.
Wednesday: 9 miles with 6 miles at marathon goal pace (7:44/mile average)—faster than my goal pace, but the effort felt appropriate.
Thursday: AM: 7 miles, treadmill, 1%-7% incline and 950 feet vertical gain, 9:19/mile average pace. PM: Total body strength training.
Friday: AM: 5 miles with Charlie, 9:02/mile average pace. PM: 30 minutes Pilates.
Saturday: 10 miles, 8:23/mile. Later, about 4 miles of hiking.
Sunday: Complete and total rest day.
45 milesfor the week
Questions of the Day:
How was your week of training? Did anyone race?
What measures do you take to emphasize recovery in your training?
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.