Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yes, Rest For the Weary

For many runners, “rest” is a four-letter word in more ways than one. Skipping a workout is anathema; taking time off, abject failure.

I understand where these feelings come from and can sympathize. In high school, we ran six days a week -- rain, snow or shine -- and hit the gym four times a week. We ran through coughs, colds, aches and pains. (In hindsight, many of us peaked in midseason but fell apart when conference championships and state meets came around.)

This run every day, balls-to-the-wall mindset remained with me for years, through college and beyond. Getting better, and reaching the lofty goals I set for myself, meant constantly pushing myself, day after day after day. Missing a workout -- just one -- would foul everything up. I was a runner, for cryin’ out loud. I was supposed to run all the time.

That has changed. Within the last year or so, I’ve learned to accept the power of rest. In fact, I’m writing this in the midst of a work week when I may not run at all, even though I have a half marathon tomorrow.

What happened? Well, life happened. When I started training for the Smuttynose Marathon, I had every intention of doing every workout in my Run Less, Run Faster program down to the letter. Then my wife spent the better part of two weeks in the hospital (she’s fine now), weeds took over my backyard and the second job started giving me eight-hour shifts every Saturday. Suffice to say, even running three days a week turned into a struggle. (Luckily, the second job requires enough heavy lifting and remaining on my feet to qualify, unofficially, as cross training.)

I decided to roll with it. My previous marathon had gone so horribly, horribly wrong, I reckoned, that even a half-assed effort would be an improvement. Looking at my training log, I decided to focus primarily on speed work and long runs. I was easily exceeding the pace goals for my tempo runs, so if I had a bad week, and I needed to cut one of my three weekly runs, that was the one. I also modified some speed workouts when pressed for time, since, well, half a speed workout is better than no speed workout. Finally, I slogged through my 20-mile runs, even though all three occurred in typical New England summer humidity.

In the end, it worked. Resting when I needed to helped me get more out of my key workouts. Crucially, I didn’t get sick. I also took it easy when nagging pain came on -- in my hips, once, and then again in my quad -- and didn’t let it derail all the hard work I’d put in up to that point. As a result, I avoided injury, too.

Was it easy? No, but it got better. Strange as it sounds, not being able to run when my wife was in the hospital probably worked to my advantage, training-wise; my thoughts were focused elsewhere, so staring at a gaping hole in my training was the least of my concerns. When my hips and quads ached, yes, I ranked among the downtrodden, but stretching and using a foam roller on my days off actually made my rest a bit more productive. Working as hard as I did made it easy to avoid taper madness, too, since I was ready to wind down and prepare myself for my race.

Like I said, this epiphany didn’t come easily. I’ve been running for 18 years, and it took 17 of them to realize that it’s OK to take an unscheduled rest day when you feel like crap. Yes, it sucks to look at your calendar through weary eyes and realize you’re putting off your Yasso 800s for another day, but if you’ll barely make it to the track, is there really any point in doing your workout at all?

(For the sake of perspective: When I skipped my workouts, I was usually so tired that, instead of getting up to get dressed for my run, I ended up falling asleep on the couch. Or, for runs slated for the morning, I was so tired that I took a sick day and slept until noon. That’s what I mean by “feel like crap,” not “I had a bad day at work” or “Gee, it’s starting to rain, I guess I’d better not run today.”)

Part of running’s beauty is its flexibility. Too damn tired to run today? Give yourself time to rest and do it tomorrow. Feeling a tweak in your hip? Stretch it like hell, foam roll it and take it easy in your first couple workouts. (Note: There is no innuendo-free way to foam roll the inside of your hip.)

The road’s not going anywhere -- and neither are your running shoes. Minor setbacks are an inevitable part of training. The key is to take them seriously, and respond to them accordingly, before they become major setbacks that derail your training altogether.