After doing 18 miles Saturday, Sunday was an off day and today was a recovery run. I took my heart-rate monitor again, and made sure to keep my heart-rate below 135 the entire time, which (as I’ve said before) is harder than you think. I don’t care how slow you run, if you are doing a recovery run without a heart-rate monitor, you are not running slow enough. Every article about recover-runs I’ve ever read says this: that to get the full benefit of the run you have to keep your heart-rate down and most runners run their recovery-runs too fast. I never really believed it until I started running with the monitor. I start out running, and naturally fall into my comfortable gait of about a 9:00 mile, which is obviously too fast, since it’s my normal running speed. So I slow down. Still too fast. And slow down again, to a really, really slow run. Still too fast. My heart-rate doesn’t fall into recovery-run range until I am nearly shuffling along the sidewalk in what feels a bit more like a fast walk. When I got back to the school and mapped out the distance, I only covered 2.32 miles in 30 minutes, or a 13 minute mile.
So what’s the point of a “recovery-run?” Why even bother going out for such a short distance at such a slow speed? For one, you’re stretching your muscles and loosening your joints and ligaments. Primarily, however, its to get blood circulating through your muscles. During a hard workout, whether it’s a long run, a really fast work, or lifting weights, your muscle fibers tear and strain, and when they re-knit themselves afterwards, they grow back stronger – that’s the whole point of a work out. In fact, the recovery AFTER a work-out is really the whole point; even if you could work out constantly, without ceasing or growing tired, you’d never get stronger, because until you stop all you can do is tear yourself apart. You have to stop, you have to rest, to rebuild. A recovery run works your target muscles just enough to draw in more blood, which brings with it the building blocks and nutrients needed to re-grow and recover. That’s why going slow is so key, however: if you do your run too fast, you’re actually straining your muscles and working out again, which reduces the efficiency of the recovery.
This is a hard thing for many runners to handle, since by nature we tend to be driven and enjoy pushing ourselves, especially in our runs. We go out too go fast, go too far, or even if we aren’t trying to push ourselves, we fall into our habitual pace. We mean well – we just want to get in a work out or a run – but we’re actually hurting ourselves, and ironically in the name of self-improvement.
There is a lesson in here, and not just for those of us training for a race. We need to make sure to schedule “recovery-runs” into our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our parenting. The puritanical work-ethic at the root of our society equates rest and recovery with laziness, trying harder with success. But more isn’t always better, harder isn’t always successful. Whenever the teachers’ contract with the city is renegotiated, the mayor tries to tie any raises with “productivity increases,” meaning more work. Schools across the country are extending the school day into the evening, and the school year into the summer, as if more work – from the teachers and from the students – is inherently a good in and of itself. When we fail to keep a resolution (we miss a work-out or have that third cup of coffee for the day or yell at our kid) we vow to try twice as hard to reach our goal. Sometimes this dedication and effort is just what is needed, and that extra hour of homework help or that early-morning workout makes the difference. (I’ve taken to doing push-ups at eleven o’clock at night and run 4 miles during my lunch period, so I obviously value effort). But sometime, more work is simply that: more work. And more work might not only be a waste of effort, but contributing to ongoing failure. If you could force me to teach two more hours a day, I would be so over-worked and over-stressed that not only would those two hours be a waste, but all the hours I currently work would suffer as well. When you beat yourself up over being a less than an ideal parent, you leave yourself feeling more stressed and more pressured to be perfect – a certain recipe for snapping over something small and insignificant.
I’m not saying we need to give ourselves permission to fail (although that’s an important lesson as well), but give ourselves permission to redefine failure, to not see lack of effort as wasted effort. One of the key aspects of Buddhism is the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment, the first of which is “samma-ditthi” or Right Understanding: seeing things as they really are. When we see things as other than they truly are, we suffer unnecessarily. If I see taking a day off as being lazy, I feel guilty; if I see running a 13 minute mile as slow, I feel weak. But if I see the day off and the slow run as a productive part of my training, I’m not lazy or weak, I’m using another part of the Eightfold Path: Right Effort. Relaxing isn’t a fault; giving yourself a break isn’t weakness; taking yesterday off wasn’t a failure; running a 13 minute mile today wasn’t a failure. You have to stop, you have to rest, to rebuild. Maybe someday I will be able to run 6 days a week, every week, without rest, but judging myself on that now wouldn’t be having high standards, it would be unfair. I’m sure Ryan Hall’s recovery runs are a bit faster than my 10K race pace. But I’m not there yet, so my 13 minutes mile isn’t slow. It’s just right.