Categorized | Dr. Mark's Desk, Endurance, Injury

Avoid Overtraining! — Keeping Your Body Healthy Means Active Rest and Recovery

Posted on 22 November 2011

Laura Bergmann regularly works out at the gym. Photo courtesy of the Observer.

Laura Bergmann is living example of a home-schooled athlete and teacher. I met Laura two years ago when we were both spreading the word on fitness in our small town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  She was not excited about running since it often led to discomfort.  Yet, in time she changed her gait; it eventually turned silky smooth and powered by a strong stride. The former dancer also became  a fierce competitor in the multisport world.  She qualified for the U.S. national  duathlon team, and this past fall, she was our country’s top placer in Spain. 

More importantly, Laura is a tireless educator and mentor in our community for youth and adults. She holds a Masters in Exercise Science and did her thesis paper on the modern running shoe and running mechanics.  Needless to say that after a year of research and practicing herself, she is a vocal advocate for natural running at our minimalist shoe store Two Rivers Treads. She takes the science and applies it to her own athletics and teaching.

Laura helps us with weekly running clinics at Two Rivers Treads.  She is amazing at kinetic chain assessment and corrective exercise.  I can do a deep squat much more proficient after working with Laura and it has greatly enhanced my mobility, strength, and balance.  Our customers realize what a huge privilege it is to have a free clinic from an elite athlete but more importantly a top-tier teacher.

Laura sets a brutal race schedule and just wrapped up  her competitive season at the Richmond Marathon. In the following first-person essay, she describes the much-overlooked need for sufficient recovery after a long, hard year of consistent training and racing. It’s a recommendation we can all use. Just last week, I decided to call it quits after running 30 miles in the JFK 50 miler.  After two tough fall marathons — the Air Force and Marine Corps races — my tired body was telling me to take it easy and not to overdo it.  –Dr. Mark

Keeping Your Body Healthy Means Active Rest and Recovery

by Laura Bergmann

I just finished a very long season with the Richmond Marathon (personal record with a time of 3:33 and placed 15th even though I wasn’t ‘racing’).  So recovery is my number-one priority.  My body has been through a lot this year and if  injury or illness is right around the corner if I’m not careful.  It’s easy to rest when your muscles hurt but it’s afterward, when your internal systems need repairing, that is difficult.  Here is a plan of action if you’re like me and ‘need a plan’ to stay sane.

Post-marathon advice:

Hal Higdon (author of The Ultimate Marathon Training Guide) suggests that it takes a minimum of two to three weeks for the body to recover from the strain of running 26 miles 385 yards (other sources say four). Returning too quickly and increases your risk of injury. Some experts suggest resting one day for every mile you run in the marathon, thus 26 days of no hard running or racing.  I did not have a ‘good’ workout for at least three weeks after my last marathon which was quite difficult mentally.

That is why I thought I’d share this plan so that all you ‘type A’ crazy runners/triathletes don’t hurt yourselves.Stiffness and muscle soreness are sure to follow most marathon efforts. The duration is typically for one to three days after the race. Contrary to popular belief, the soreness is not caused by lactic acid accumulation but by actual microscopic muscle damage.  (That has now been proven by very recent research.) The severity depends on the specificity of fitness of the individual and the intensity of the effort.

The training you do in the three weeks following a marathon should be a reverse taper. Long after the muscle soreness goes away your endocrine and immune system are still fragile and need rest.

After the marathon, your immune status will be depressed.  The stress to your internal systems by training and running a marathon leaves you susceptible to, colds, flu, and other upper respiratory tract infections in the days and weeks that follow. After the marathon, be sure to allow yourself more sleep and focus on a well-balanced, nutritious diet immediately following the race. During the first week following the race, focus on rehydration, rich antioxidant fruits, vegetables, and protein.

Your first goal should be to rid yourself of any problems lingering from your pre-race training program or acquired during the race itself (any little ‘twinge’ you’ve been pushing through).  Active rest is normally enough under these circumstance. ‘Rest’ does not mean laying on the couch for three weeks.   Active rest means exchanging non-plyometric, low-impact activities such as pool running, swimming, and cycling for your running. This will get blood and oxygen flowing that will speed up muscle repair.Of course if you fail to improve seek professional care. Most problems should improve after about two weeks.

There is also a common issue of ‘post-marathon blues.’  Most running magazines mention it.  You trained hard all year and suddenly it’s all over. It has been documented that choline, a neurotransmitter precursor, is depleted with marathon-like efforts. Perhaps marathon efforts impact neurotransmitters, thereby having a bearing on depression in a similar way. Regardless, post-marathon blues affect many runners in the days and weeks following the race. While there’s no scientifically proven approach to post-marathon blues, there are some things you can do such as with proper sleep, diet, and hydration. You might try supplements, including choline, and herbal remedies (consult a doctor first). But finding a new goal to look toward will help as well.

I’ve found it helpful for my mental health to have a plan to follow just as I have done all year.

The concept of periodization of training is well established and implemented throughout the world. In virtually all programs, the recovery mesocycle is the first phase of any major training macrocycle. Within the recovery-phase mesocycle are still smaller units of organized activity called microcycles. What follows are suggestions  I found from the marathon guide magazine (Recovering from Boston)  that concur with my physiological knowledge.  I modified them to include other things I felt important to mention.

Warning: The presence of muscle soreness and stiffness should preclude you from transitioning from one microcycle to another. As I mentioned before, it is a sign of micro tears in the muscle.  You can also use heart rate monitoring.  I use mine to ensure I am not over training all year.  It is the only ‘true’ thing that can’t be reasoned away by an anxious athlete’s mind.

Heart-rate monitoring can be another valuable transition indicator. Resting heart rates (obtained just prior to rising) 10 beats per minute or more above your pre-race rate can be used as an indicator of persisting fatigue and incomplete recovery.

A more sensitive use of heart-rate monitoring would be to record your heart rate just before rising from bed in the morning and then again 20 seconds after rising. Subtract the first recorded rate from the higher standing rate. If all is well, the resulting calculated value should not vary more than five beats per minute from day to day or from pre-race to post-race. When these heart-rate monitoring indicators are not favorable, restrain from transitioning to the next microcycle, and even consider returning to the previous microcycle schedule until normal.

Microcycle 1: The First 24 Hours

Immediately after the race, keep walking, despite the urge to collapse to the ground. Start drinking cool, carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement fluids as soon as possible; only in cases of hypothermia should you drink warm fluids instead. Within the first two hours after the race, continue to replace fluids, begin to consume solid carbohydrate replacement, walk at least one mile, perform some gentle stretching, avoid diuretics such as alcohol and caffeine, and avoid warm baths and hot tubs.

Options for the first two hours—or for that matter, any time during the first 24 hours—include walking or gently stretching in a cool pool and gentle massage.

After the first two hours, with proper rehydration, you should be able to urinate before six hours have elapsed following completion of the race, and your post-race meals should mirror your prerace meals—that is, heavy in carbohydrates to replace those you just burned in running from Hopkinton to Boston.

For the remainder of the first 24 hours, don’t worry about snacking focus on anti inflammatory foods such as pinapple, cherries, and immune boosting oranges and berries.  Begin self-care of any ailments or injuries you may have acquired; and try to get horizontal and rest.

Microcycle 2: Complete Rest

This microcycle lasts from Day 1 after the marathon until you have no muscle soreness, injury, or ailment. In terms of absolute time, this microcycle may last for two days or two weeks, perhaps longer, depending on injury or ailment.

You should use this period for restorative efforts, including continued rehydration; consuming a well-balanced, nutritious diet with perhaps a greater focus on protein calories than your normal training diet; and allowing for more sleep than your normal training allotment.

Also use this time to review your training program and race. Consider what you did well and what you would like to change next time around. After reviewing your training and race, begin the process of picking a new target (if you haven’t already). As for activities during this period, gentle stretching, massage, cool pool walking, and light strolling are acceptable. Avoid running, jogging, and any circular/saggital plane movement with impact.

Continue to provide self-care for any ailments or injuries that you have. Do not transition to the next microcycle until you have no muscle soreness, no injuries or ailments, and you have restored your body weight to pre-race levels. Also, if you’re using heart-rate monitoring indicators, you should no longer be recording abnormal values.

If you have an injury or ailment and all other transition indicators are normal, you may transition to a suitable cross-training endeavor that does not conflict with the proper care of your injury or ailment.

Microcycle 3: Return to Easy Running

This microcycle usually begins three to four days after the race (barring prolongation of Microcycle 2 after injury or ailment) and lasts through four weeks following the race (again, barring setbacks after injury or ailments). The pace of all runs during this period should be below lactate threshold. The maximum distance of any run should not exceed the length of any pre-marathon run (exclusive of your long runs).

Along with these two caps, take care to slowly progress the frequency and distance of your runs. Running might be initiated only every other or every third day, with cross-training or days off in between. By the end of this period, you should be comfortably handling the frequency and distance level of your training just before your marathon-specific program started, but without speed work or long runs.

Throughout this microcycle, carefully monitor yourself for all of the injuries and ailments previously reviewed and for heart-rate indicators. Back off if indicated. In some cases, it might be necessary to return to Microcycle 2 and start over.

Microcycle 4: Reintroduction of Long Runs and Speedwork

After achieving your baseline training frequency and distance at the end of Microcycle 3, you need only to gradually introduce (a) faster running in the form of lactate threshold and supra-threshold (VO2max) training and (b) long runs. Avoid introducing all of these elements in the first week of this micro-cycle. The focus on these additional training elements should be based on the new target race. You need to remain vigilant for signs of injury, ailment, or overtraining. Expect to feel tired or sluggish when you first start running. Listen to your body not your GPS for mileage increases.

Give yourself a break.  After months and months of pushing yourself to the limit,  it may feel uncomfortable to be lazy.  I struggle to not feel like a complete sloth.  Keep in mind that constant pushing will override your parasympathetic nervous system.  This will cause you to have to take six months to a year completely off!  So remind yourself that a few weeks is a lot better than a few months and that you still need recovery long after the muscle soreness subsides.

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One Response to “Avoid Overtraining! — Keeping Your Body Healthy Means Active Rest and Recovery”

  1. MarkC says:

    Laura,

    Great detailed piece. I will be joining you in the recovery now after a busy fall with 2 hard marathons and lots of other life commitments. The Kenyans often go home and farm for a month or two…there is something to be learned from that. Enjoy your thanksgiving feast, you’ve earned it. Mark


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