June 04, 2014

9 things I've learned about recovery and injury prevention

First, a little backstory. If you're not interested, go ahead and skip down to the list. I got into triathlon a little less than a year ago. It started with a new pair of running shoes. They were so bright and spiffy, it dawned on me that maybe I should... actually go for a run. In my early 20s I had played ultimate and dabbled in mountain biking, but I hadn't "gone for a run" in about 17 years. I had heard of try-a-tri events -- the run distance was 2 km. How far was 2 km, anyway? I had only ever run by time, and that was ages ago. I wondered if I could run that far? A month later, I was up to 5 km -- and trying to get faster at it.

Then I signed up for Ironman Tremblant 70.3, and the real work began. I read up on running form. Building volume. Building distance. I came upon alarming statistics about the prevalence of running injuries. I started a RunKeeper 1/2-marathon training plan, with the aim of steadily progressing toward that distance while minimizing the chance of injury. I wanted to share some of what I learned, from people with a ton more experience than me, about recovery and injury prevention.

1. Listen to your body
Know what discomfort vs. pain feels like for you. If you feel an off sensation somewhere, be mindful of it. Is it getting worse? Does it disappear after warming up? I have often run through discomfort -- but never through real pain. At one point, a niggling weakness and soreness I felt in my knee hadn't resolved with decreased distance and a couple of days off. So I bagged running workouts for a week, electing to keep up with cycling and swimming (which didn't hurt). Thankfully this solved the problem. Nip small issues in the bud and allow yourself to heal... instead of setting yourself up for a bigger injury and longer layoff later on.

2. Use a trigger point foam roller
"Are you foam rolling?" was the immediate question from my coach Geordie when another athlete and I mentioned some soreness we were experiencing. I have to admit, I thought this must either be some kind of cultish trend, or perhaps something that "real" athletes do when they're trying to recover from, say, a 50-mile running week. Rolling a piece of foam under your leg? "Oh, it'll hurt. But it's great," Geordie insisted. Seriously -- if you do enough running that you get stiff muscles (which is pretty much anyone who does any running at all), get thee a trigger point foam roller and start using it. It is fantastic.

3. Don't stretch cold muscles
You've probably heard by now that stretching before you warm up is a no-no. Make sure those muscles are warm before you stretch. 

4. Allow time for your body to absorb training and fatigue
I'll never run out of wise words from Geordie. These stuck with me, on a day that my legs felt trashed from a long run a couple days before. "Fatigue is fitness waiting to be gained." The trick is, you have to allow time to absorb that fatigue and recover in order to realize those fitness gains. Which leads me to this next nugget, which seems almost counterintuitive...

5. Do most of your training long and easy
I read something on Slowtwitch (a website and forum for triathletes) that drove home for me exactly what this means. A forum member said "Do lots and lots of running at a pace that you would be embarrassed to be seen doing." He called this a "bag run," owing to the fact that you want to wear a bag over your head so nobody recognizes you. A higher volume of slow, easy work allows you to recover faster -- and therefore train more -- than if you frequently go hard and fast. 

6. Sleep
I think most of us (myself certainly included) tend to forget what a really good night's sleep feels like. I attended a talk on recovery techniques given by Lisa Balerna -- a fantastic local duathlete who can probably run backwards as fast as I can run forwards -- who underscored the importance of sleep in helping the recovery process. I experimented with getting a true 8 hours, or 9-10 hours even, of sleep at night. The difference was unbelievable. I woke up without an alarm, and I felt good. Of course it's often not an easy thing to fit in that much sleep (unless you have little ones like me, and just surrender to falling asleep in one of their beds at 8:30 p.m.). And I don't manage it every day. But if you start thinking of sleep as part of your training regimen, it's easier to make the time to do it right.

7. Be mindful of nutrition
OK, I'll go ahead and say it. Sometimes I get a hankering for an unspeakable place that rhymes with "McSchmonald's." However, far more often I'll really feel like a big arugula salad with peppers, avocado, sunflower seeds... you get the idea. Life's too short to say "I can't eat this -- ever." But being mindful of what you're fueling yourself with is important. Your body can't repair itself and function optimally without a good balance of nutritious foods (guess we'll file that under "duh"). Keeping healthy, whole foods in the house makes it easier to eat well. There are loads of racing "diets" out there, and I'm not going to get into any of them (mostly because I'm no expert), but you can't go far wrong with the following mantra:

Eat stuff that IS an ingredient, rather than stuff that HAS ingredients. 

8. Carefully consider your race schedule
I love racing. During the season, I treat races as my hard workout for each discipline for that week. Since I train alone, the added push of adrenaline and competition is just the ticket. However, I've recently experienced first-hand the cumulative effects of frequent racing. The past month for me has included a charity bike ride, two triathlons, and a 1/2 marathon. At the last triathlon, a fellow competitor and I talked about how we felt residual fatigue in our legs from the 1/2 marathon the week before. Now, this is fine -- provided it meshes with your goals. In my case, all these early-season events were calculated practice for my A race at Tremblant. But if you're looking to race your absolute best, make sure you allow adequate time to recover between events.

9. Don't wear high heels
So last year, I managed to finish the season injury-free -- then tweaked my knee taking a bad step in a pair of (really smashing and awesome) high heeled boots. Safety first! Save the fabulous shoes for after your A race, people!

Edit: Hey, it's a year later and I've tried some new things for recovery... check it out, if you're interested!

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