On Monday, one of my running buddies asked me whether it was ok to run when she felt stiff. And I didn’t know what the answer was. Was she stiff from running? Stiff from other exercise? Stiff from changing pillows and getting a crap night’s sleep?
But I did go away and look into it, as it’s a question I’ve wondered too: how do you know when your body needs to really rest, and how do you know when it’s ok to push through another workout?
It seems that there are two topics here: the recovery run, and working out when your body is already stiff from something else.
The Recovery Run
If you’re following a training plan for an event, you might notice some much shorter, slower runs following your longest run of the week. This isn’t because the person who designed the training plan is a sadist, it’s because the ‘recovery run’ as it’s known is an important part of training. It’s up there with the fartlek, the tempo run and the hill reps. I promise.
So. When you go on a recovery run, your body is already in a state of fatigue from the day before. Your legs can’t believe you’re dragging them out for another run, and your shoes are still damp from the day before (gross).
During your workout the day before, you will probably have challenged yourself and pushed beyond the point when you initially began to tire. This is how you increase your fitness: your body becomes better at coping and recovering from such stresses. You’re already knackered when you start a recovery run, and so even though it may be shorter and slower than typical, it’s still improving your fitness. Plus, mentally you are getting used to how it feels to run on tired legs, which is a completely separate but still very important issue if you ask me.
Another way of looking at it is that there are workouts designed to improve your speed, strength and stamina by increasing your resistance to their triggers. This is why you run intervals, and why you do 20 miles before a marathon. However, the actual total amount that you run overall improves your ‘running economy’. So doing a shorter, slower run will be beneficial as your overall volume will be greater had you not done the recovery run.
Recovery runs don’t expel any lactic acid, and don’t actually contribute much to actual recovery. They are more to do with creating efficiency and helping you deal with your next challenge. This article puts it really well:
However, it’s also been noted that you don’t really need to do a recovery run until you’re running about 4 times a week. Anything under that can focus on a variety of runs interspersed with rest days.
So that’s recovery runing.
Running When You’re Stiff
We all know how this one goes. You’ve done a hard work out at the gym. Or in my case, you’ve killed it at pole. Your arms are tired, you can’t walk up the stairs without wincing. Is it a good idea to go for the run you had planned?
That stiffness is known as DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – and happens because during intense exercise, your muscles experience tiny tears. DOMS should decrease after 3-5 days as your muscles repair themselves. As the body whirls into action to repair itself, and becomes better at doing this, that’s when the improvements to our fitness actually occur. Weird, right?
Judging the level of your DOMS is key in deciding whether or not to exercise. If it’s not tender when you touch the area, and your range of motion is not impaired, then it’s ok to exercise. However you should always judge for yourself, and be aware of any increasing pain during the workout. Don’t be a hero!!
Start with some gentle aerobic exercise as a warm up: I like running with high knees, skipping (on the ground, not with a rope), and stepping from side to side, as these work out different leg muscles. Once you’re warmed up, you can stretch a little if you’re feeling stiff still.
Then increase your intensity of workout gradually – don’t rush into anything immediately. And be prepared to take things a little slower than usual: just as with the recovery run, you don’t necessarily want to give your body under more stress. Wind down your workout in the same way that you started – gradually – and make sure you stretch afterwards to minimise any DOMS following this workout.
Be aware that DOMS and overtraining are different, and watch out for the signs of overtraining. I’m also a HUGE fan of the complete rest day.
Anyway, I hope that helps some of you out there!