Time for Installment Two, which I’ll begin with a bit of humble braggery. It’s a boring war story, but I’m making a point about your health and performance.

In 1982, I ran the Huntsville Rocket City Marathon. It was a cold windy day, raining and sleeting. I ran the race in 2 hours and 39 minutes. This was a good time for me, but the race was an Olympic Trials Qualifier and the field was stacked. I believe I finished 49th. To compare, I was first in the Vulcan Marathon in 1991 with a 2:38.

I ran the first half at Huntsville with the great Lisa Martin, who ran the fastest first-time marathon that day in 2:32. I was so mesmerized by running with her and her Aussie accent that I drastically over-ran the first half in 1:11, still my half-marathon personal best. In later years, Lisa went on to break the women’s world record and win Olympic gold.

I didn’t. What I did do was go out the very next day and run 10 miles with my running group. I fell right back into a 6-minute mile pace and made all my friends angry. I felt great and thought I must be at another performance level to have recovered so well from the marathon.

The point of my boring war story is to talk about recovery for the endurance athlete. The next day, 48 hours post-marathon, I woke up feeling like absolute crap. I hurt head to toe and had a sharp searing pain in my left shin. By the end of the week, I had pneumonia. It took me three full months to get back to normal.

All this manifested two days after the marathon. Would I have recovered much more easily and quickly had I not run the day after the race?

Dr. David Costill was a brilliant sports science researcher in 1960s and ‘70s. The primary focus of his work was recovery of the endurance athlete, especially runners, swimmers and cyclists. His landmark book, “Inside Running: The Basics of Sports Physiology,” revolutionized what was known about training and recovery and is still referenced today. Costill would actually biopsy an athlete’s primary muscles before an event like a marathon and then again after to compare levels of recovery based on stored glycogen levels. In follow-up testing, he found that it took 30 days after a marathon for glycogen levels to return to normal if the subject did no running. The more the test subject ran immediately after the marathon, the longer glycogen recovery took. Athletes who took no recovery time post-marathon and were tested one year after the race still had not recovered. This sets up the familiar “one-hit wonder” scenario.

Say this to yourself three times: We don’t improve with exercise without adaptation to the stress the exercise provided. Exercise alone does not make us better; in fact, it actually tears us down. Recovery and adaptation make us better.
We sometimes study extreme-sport athletes because they serve as a great microcosm to help us understand more typical exercisers. We’ve learned that recovery is by far the most important aspect of any training program and always correlates with improved performance. Nutrition, genetics, stress – all play a role in recovery. However, we can’t cheat time. Downtime is the one factor we can’t subtract and still achieve success.

This is not the typical mindset of those listening to this or reading it. It is the nature of the endurance athlete to overdo. We are a super-compulsive set of personalities. Add a large dose of denial to the equation and it’s little wonder chronic injuries manifest. It’s probably accurate to say this principle applies to any form of stress, whether it be physical, environmental, or emotional.

A common question I’m asked is “Why am I not improving?” Most of the time you will find your answer in lack of recovery time. So get out there and recover hard!!!