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Use rest effectively

This is an excerpt from Timeless Running Wisdom by Richard Benyo.

Every time you turn around, there are reports of how overworked and overtired Americans are. A recent study concluded that Americans have no more leisure time today than they had in 1900 (Harper's Magazine, June 2007, p. 13). I think back to the 1950s when, inspired by the space race, scientists and sociologists were spending an inordinate amount of time gazing raptly into the ideal future overflowing with outrageous laborsaving devices.

As it turned out, nothing much came of all the daydreaming of futures filled with fun and leisure. If you want leisure time, you've gotta live in Europe, where they get five weeks off at a time (usually the same five weeks in the middle of summer) and all go to the same beaches to relax like fleas on a poodle.

For most Americans, on the other hand, a 40-hour workweek just doesn't get it done. And if you're a salaried employee or self-employed, you get to work just as many hours as you can stand. It's no wonder there are dozens of sleep-aid ads in magazines and on television. It's no wonder people are turning their cars into mobile offices.

The experts contend that, when you finally do drag yourself to bed, if it takes less than three minutes to fall asleep, you are overtired. (Of course, you don't want the opposite problem, either: insomnia that causes you to never get to sleep, sometimes caused by walking around all day in a semislumber.)

Marching through life in an overtired state isn't good for a person's health, and it certainly isn't good for a person's equanimity. This may be why so many people try to construct an even keel by enrolling in everything from aromatherapy to yoga to book discussion clubs to quilting bees. (No joke. The latter is making a comeback as a way of relaxing, helping the local community, and socializing with a group of like-minded folks.)

The surrender to a continuous feeling of tiredness splashes over into long-distance running. People who are very serious about their running are frequently not serious enough about the resting phase of their training. And it's the resting phase of a training program where the training effect actually takes place. Dave Costill, the godfather of human performance studies, put it very simply in his book Running: The Athlete Within: “Balance work and rest. The purpose of training is to stimulate the runner's anatomy and physiology to grow stronger during periods of rest and repair. Without adequate rest, the benefits of training cannot be fully realized (p. 103).”

You can train yourself into the ground, but if you don't back off and give your body (and mind and spirit) time to recover from the workouts, the training effect never has a chance to kick in, and the workouts are nothing more than self-flagellation.

Consider the fact that any training you do is a process of breaking down your muscles. Run a hard 10-mile workout and your muscles are stressed and strained and, to an extent, damaged. You can't do too many hard workouts too frequently without inviting injury or breakdown. A running journal can be educational when you suffer an overuse injury, because you can then put on your deer slayer cap and clench that pipe firmly in the side of your mouth and get out that magnifying glass; then, in the guise of Sherlock Holmes, you can peruse the last two or three weeks of your training journal and determine just where you started to hurt yourself.

Overuse injuries don't happen overnight. It's traumatic injuries that occur suddenly, like when you trip on the curb of the sidewalk and fall down. Overuse injuries are like the mist on the windshield of a car. When enough mist falls, the droplets begin to run one into another, in the process forming ever-larger drops that slide down the windshield, encounter other drops, clot together and make still bigger drops. That's how an overuse injury happens: little tears joining other little tears to finally come together to make big tears—and big tears are overuse injuries.

If you stop the misting process, eventually the droplets evaporate and you're no worse for the wear you've laid on your muscles. The way to stop the misting process is to rest.

Rest doesn't have to be total inactivity that makes you feel as though you've encased yourself in a complete body cast. Gentle physical activity (taking a stroll, puttering in the garden, or walking the dog) can be a form of active rest. The object is to stay away from more running for a period of time so that your body can undergo the training effect. The result is that when your next scheduled workout comes along, your muscles are at an increased level of fitness and ready for an additional workload.

This need for rest is why most professional runners don't have regular jobs. Part of their job is taking a quality nap in the afternoon between the morning and the late-afternoon workout. They also get regular massages to expedite the recovery process from their training, which is both high quality and high quantity. They also need to psychologically rest so they can recuperate from recent races and more demanding strength training workouts, such as hill work.

For most of us who are stitching our training in around the quiltwork of real life, getting in the necessary rest periods can be difficult. But if we are to perform well in races and if we are to continue training without incurring injury, we definitely need to accommodate the body's need for restorative rest.

Of course, there is also a flip side these days. Some runners expect to run well on more rest than training. Runners who train little but expect decent results have spent too much time in the modern school system where everyone who shows up gets a gold star. Or, if you show up late but not quite as late as last week, you are also praised and rewarded. Or, if you merely exist, you expect praise.

Long-distance running rewards hard work. There are no shortcuts, no matter how many claims you hear that this or that food will knock five minutes off your next 10K. The rewards of long-distance running are earned the hard way: one step at a time. The successful long-distance runner is a master of pacing, hard work, and appropriate rest.

You don't need to run 120 miles a week to get a decent marathon time—especially if you are already working full-time or beyond.

You can run a marathon you can be proud of on 55 to 75 miles (89 to 121 km) a week. The 120-mile-per-week (193 km) load is for the national- and international-class runners. But you won't run a decent marathon on 25 to 35 (40 to 56 km) miles a week—unless you've been at it a long time and your legs have a lot of muscle memory miles on them. Memory miles come from those long, hard weeks of training over a decade or more that hard-wires your legs to know what is required of them when you pin on a number. But that seemingly magical phenomenon can be tapped only so many times.

For the good runner, hard work is a must. As is hard rest, which could include a well-placed nap. Naps are silver bullets against exhaustion.

Although it is impractical to take a nap during a fiercely fought 10K or even in a marathon, it is not unusual for ultrarunners to take naps during hundred-milers, especially during the dark hours. I know a woman who ran the Western States 100 and, midway through the night portion, just could not go on. She was exhausted. Her pacer advised her to lie down beside the trail and take a half-hour nap. Ten minutes later the pacer woke her up and she was filled with energy and raring to go. “I feel great,” she responded. “That was the best half-hour I ever spent sleeping.” Of course, the pacer never told her she'd been down for a mere 10 minutes.

As members of a society built on guilt, and as people on whom guilt is often heaped (sometimes even by ourselves), it is sometimes difficult to feel comfortable taking that well-earned, strategic rest period without feeling guilty—and nothing interrupts a perfectly good nap more effectively than a rash of guilt for taking the nap (or from questioning whether you are napping correctly).

More Excerpts From Timeless Running Wisdom