Recovering from Big Training Blocks

When I was training for my first marathon, I ran practically all my runs on the treadmill. I’d get to my local Gold’s Gym in Bozeman first thing in the morning, right around 630am, and hit it hard for an hour or so. I’d bring along my hand towel (to wipe the sweat off my face), a bottle of water, and my iPod. I’d set the speed to 7.5mph and just go. Sometimes I’d score a treadmill that let me run more than 60min without stopping. Six days a week, I’d be on the ‘mill, sometimes hitting up Gold’s in the evening, too. Since all I did during that phase of racing was run, there were weeks when I’d run 70-80 miles a week, all on the mill. Yes, that meant I was running a 2.5hour run at 8:15min/mile. But I got it done, and marathons of America’s Next Top Model helped.

So I did all my training on the treadmill, big deal. But, the cool thing was, I ran my first marathon (on four months of training) in 3:22. I don’t know if it was the elevation that Bozeman sat at (around 4500ft) and the fact that my marathon was at sea level, or that I ran a consistent pace on my regular runs and still included hills and intervals, but whatever the case may be, my training worked.

After my run, usually two days a week, I’d do pull-ups to failure to increase my max pull-up count. During my first-mary training, I made it up to 14 pull-ups in one go. Sweet!*

I luckily didn’t succumb to any injuries during my training, and nixed any weight lifting I had been doing (other than the pull-ups and occasional sit-ups). I’d take recovery days, have long-run days, and really looked forward to my intensity days. I had a lot of fun (believe it or not) with the treadmill that season.

One of the most important things I included with my training was my recovery. This took all shapes and sizes. I worked part-time as a nanny at the time, so I’d spend my evenings with my feet propped up reading a book to my boys, or watching a Felicity episode (or three) with my roommates. After most workouts, especially evening ones (some ending as late as 11pm), I’d have the smoothie bar at Gold’s make me a protein shake. I practically became addicted to vanilla Champion Ultramet made with ice, water, and peanut-butter. So much so, that my roommate bought me a smoothie-punch card for my birthday. I had recovery days, I never had two hard workouts in a row, and the time after my long runs was usually spent at the Daily or Rockford Coffee Shops (for some serious rehydration, of course).

Ok, so you may be asking youself: why would an endurance geek even want to take a protein shake after running? Well, there is recent evidence to suggest that protein and carbohydrate ingestion reduces protein breakdown following exercise [1]. Similarly, ingestion of calories in liquid form acutely during and after exercise likely increases nutrient absorption and enhances muscle glycogen resynthesis [2,3]. Plus, it left me feeling really satisfied and ready to tackle the day (since I did my runs in the morning, of course).

If you think about it, your body is going through a whole mess of changes when you ramp up your training for the first time (or after a break from training). Training works by forcing your muscles to do things they aren’t used to doing. Neurological and musculoskeletal adaptations take place, but if you don’t allow your body to recover from your training adaptations, your body won’t have such an easy time adapting. Your muscles will break down their protein backbone, they won’t have an easy time rebuilding because they aren’t given any rest, and they’ll become weak and susceptible to injury. So, in other words, recovery = good.

Training for my first marathon, I had to let my body adapt. In fact, I still have to let my body adapt. That’s what training is all about. Although I had trained with high mileage during my collegiate cross-country and track seasons, I had taken a year and a half practically completely off to “recover” from my previous racing days and big training blocks. Sure, I ran a few 10Ks and even threw down (and threw up) at the Bridger Ridge Run, but I was really fit throughout the training for my first marathon, and it was dedication and diet that got me there. Now, I’m pushing through a big block that includes some high mileage and big hours. I don’t run all my runs indoors, thanks to the well-maintained sidewalks of Houghton, but I do follow a lot of the same rules as I did three years ago…

“Big” Training Blocks: One of the ways to encourage your body to adapt is to incorporate big blocks in your training (after you’ve provided ample time to get to the period of building your miles.. see below). So what is a big block? Big blocks are periods in your training plan that incorporate increased time spend on your feet, in the saddle, and/or in the pool. It’s getting your body ready for the race-focusing periods ahead. Your big blocks don’t necessarily have much intensity involved in them (they do incorporate some threshold paces, usually once or twice a week, but definitely not any max-effort speeds), and they teach your body to build its endurance so when the time comes for hammerfests, you’re ready (and can hang on for the long haul). You’re teaching your body to adapt to longer training days, so when it comes time to fine tune your race strategy and race day performance, you’ll be ready (and your lungs, legs and feet won’t be holding you back).

Recovering during big training blocks can be hard. During the big weeks, you might not find time in the day to find peace. During the recovery weeks, you might feel like you’re losing ground, that pulling back on your training isn’t what you’re “supposed” to be doing. But, its absolutely essential to get in some good recovery time. Here are some tips I have as you ramp up your training:

  • Get to bed early. I have a bad habit of sitting at my computer catching up on bloggy/facebook/twitter worlds until as late as 11:30 at night. So, I’ve made a vow to shut my computer at 9pm and get ready for bed. Nine o’clock too early? Well, how about 9:30? This is important to follow throughout the big endurance-blocks of training, whether its the biggest volume week of the season or simply a recovery week. [P.S. Sleeping in on Saturdays definitely warrants a late(r) night curfew on Friday!]
  • Get up early, consistently. I set my alarm for 5:45am. That’s not really that early compared to a lot of my endurojunkie friends, but I seriously love sleeping. I need a good 8 hours. And I make sure that I get it!  Once I get into a rhythm of waking up regularly at 5:45am, I set my “internal clock”, and end up waking up without the alarm sometimes. Getting up early allows me to have time in the morning to get some training in, as well as eat a decent breakfast and ease into the day.
  • Ease into your Big Block. Don’t just go from couch potato to marathon in a few weeks. In fact, big blocks shouldn’t begin until you have a good base. That being said, the general rule of thumb, to preventing injury, is to not increase your training by more than 10% a week. This may seem daunting when you start off-the-couch, but hopefully your off-season training has some structure to it. If not, don’t fret! You’ll get there.
    • Periodize your training.
      • Break your big training blocks into 4 week periods. Each season might have 2-3 of these consecutively. Depending on what you want as your maximum volume in any one week during the season, you can calculate the volumes of the weeks in your big training blocks.
    • Don’t forget to take recovery periods. If you ramp up your training for three weeks, increasing mileage each time, take the fourth week to recovery. If you don’t allow yourself that week of recovery, your body might not see any gains in your ramped-up training.
      • Ahh, but here’s where it gets tricky. Recovery weeks don’t mean “off” weeks. You still gotta do something. So instead of continuing to ramp your training up 10%, maybe decrease your volume by 20-30% of the largest week’s volume. In other words, follow this type of plan:
        • Week 1– 65-80% volume
        • Week 2– 75-90% volume
        • Week 3– 85-100% volume
        • Week 4– 55-70% volume
        • (volume being a general term for either the max training you’ll want to do in one week for a given season, and/or the max training you’ll want to do for a given period).
  • Eat a good breakfast. My go-to food during my first marathon training (other than protein shake) was oatmeal. I now eat steel cut oats because they are cheaper, and safer, for my gluten free diet. I mix in a spoonful of brown sugar and a scoop of peanut butter, and I have a meal that will hold me over until lunchtime… usually.
  • Snack! I try to avoid ever feeling hungry, so I keep Larabars in my desk. Breakfast is usually one of the bigger meals of the day for me.
  • Take a day off. I’m not a proponent of the Weekend Warrior^, but your body needs rest. Mondays are usually my off days. That means I sleep in a little later, I don’t dare put on my running shoes, and I get a “get out of jail free” card. This gets tricky when training for triathlon, because a lot of people think that if they take a day off from running, they should still go bike and swim. Try to plan your training so that your off day is completely off from any kind of training. Can’t handle that because you’re too OCD to not spend an hour a day working out? Pick up a different activity, like yoga, or just spend the time you’d normally put towards training on something your body will appreciate, like a massage (yessss), trigger point therapy, or stretching. Your body will thank you.
  • Eat right. Not everything you need to ingest needs to come preformulated for premium performance. I have a terrible habit of not taking vitamins. But (knock on wood), I don’t really want to take vitamins. I’d much rather try to eat good, wholesome foods, full of really good calories and nutrients, and get my vitamins that way. Plus, I’m lazy. This morning, I looked at my row of vitamin bottles and didn’t feel like opening them, so I didn’t take any pills this morning. Oops.
    • If you’re vegetarian (like I was when I was training for my first half), try to get your protein in. Nuts are a great source. So is tofu and soy. Bragg’s Aminos is a good product to sprinkle on your rice and noodles (tastes like soy sauce). And of course, there’s always the premium performance blends of protein shakes if you need ’em. Eat whole foods, like brown rice and beans, to get the most out of your meals. I found some mung bean pasta noodles at my local co-op that have a crap-ton of protein (we’re talking 20g of protein per serving!). Other good foods? Lentils, falafel, potatoes, and cheese.
    • Follow the mentality of moderation. Too much of anything can’t be good for you. Too much exercise, too much protein shake, whatever.
    • Have a craving? Indulge it! You’re working hard, why not have some ice cream if you have a craving for mint chocolate chip. I don’t condone eating the entire half gallon in one sitting, but I won’t rat you out if you do.

  • Listen to your body. Have a 15mile run scheduled, but feeling like crap? It’s ok to move things around. Get in an easy run, or change your off day for the week, and throw down the 15miler the next day. Your body isn’t necessarily meant to be synced with an Excel spreadsheet.
    • This is especially important if you are feeling joint or muscle pain. The last thing you want to do in a big training block is get injured. If you are feeling that the stress of training is taking a toll on your musculoskeletal system, back off!
    • Invest in a La-Z-Boy. Seriously, best invention ever for endurance athletes.
    • Don’t procrastinate. It’s a bad idea to keep pushing off your long runs until you get to the next long run. Consistency is key.

Any other tips for training recovery?


[1]  Howarth, K.R., et al. Coingestion of protein with carbohydrate during recovery from endurance exercise stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009 – 106 – 1394-1402

[2] Millard-Stafford, M., et al. Recovery Nutrition: Timing and Composition after Endurance Exercise. Current Sports Medicine Reports, July/August 2008 – 7 (4) – 193-201

[3]  Zaryski, C., et al., Training Principles and Issues for Ultra-endurance Athletes. Current Sports Medicine Reports, June 2005 – 4 (3) – 165-170

*my current pull-up challenge is to get to 20 this spring. Hoofta!

^A Weekend Warrior is someone who doesn’t really train during the week, comes home after work and watches sports/reality TV, eats dinner, and goes to bed, but on the weekend goes mega-blaster all over training. Three hour run + 50mile bike and several hundred meter swimming in the pool… on Saturday. Sunday is a whole ‘nother megablock of training extravaganza. I don’t recommend this style of training.

Warning: Don’t just jump into any Big Block that your buddy is doing. Seriously. You could get injured. Big Blocks are specific to the training you’ve been doing and the goals you wish to accomplish. [Having reasonable goals is incredibly important, too.] Build build build, prepare your body for it. Anyway, “Big” is all relative, right?


8 thoughts on “Recovering from Big Training Blocks

  1. Tons of great info in this post! I worked with a sports nutritionist for a while about a year ago and for a short time was paying a lot of attention to my protein intake. And then I stopped working with her.. and then I stopped adding up the grams.. and then before I new it I was definitely falling below the recommended levels!

    All it takes is a little dedication to just *being aware* and I was back on track, and protein shakes definitely help me out there! I’m still trying to get a VitaMix.. but for now, my Magic Bullet is making do 😉

  2. I got one of those cantilever pullup bars for Christmas! It pretty much rocks. My goal is 10 by this spring. I’m currently at 3, but I make myself do 4 sets of 3, so I should get there soon! You may use it when you’re here… if you feel like showing off for everyone:)

  3. I love a good protein shake after a hard run! So many athletes make the mistake of thinking protein is only for meatheads. Really, anyone who engages in “exhaustive exercise” — which long runs and speedwork certainly are — can benefit from the muscle-recovery benefits.

  4. Fantastic, thoughtful post. You are a rock star for training on the mill, but it looks like it paid off. I used to be bad at recovery, but I now realize the importance. BTW, I retweeted about the Laura bars and thanks for tagging me 🙂

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