Recovery and the runner's adaptation curve
A lesson from Mark Cucuzzella's 'Run For Your Life'
Know how it feels when you’re done with a run, when hormones and endorphins race through your body and you experience that slight euphoria we all know (and love)?
Even better, you know the incredibly restful sleep you get after you’ve gone for a long run earlier in the day, the kind where you close your eyes and then wake up and it’s the next morning already — no waking up in the middle of the night?
We all feel our bodies exert themselves when we run, our hearts pumping and our blood flowing. But that’s not when our runs actually benefit us the most — it’s after we’re done, when we rest and/or sleep, that the real benefits accrue.
That’s what I’ve been learning as I read Run For Your Life, a 2018 book by Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and a professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who created the Efficient Running Project for the Air Force several years ago.
The book — with chapters like “Our Bodies Are Older Than We Think,” “Stand Up and Breathe” and “The Nature Cure” — reminds me a lot of Daniel Lieberman’s Exercised, which we last discussed almost a year ago. Cucuzzella weaves the evolutionary history of our bodies into his recommendations how we can use them better now, with plenty of myth debunking that will get your attention:
MYTH: Life spans have increased compared with decades ago.
FACT: When chronic disease and declining public health are factored in, modern life spans aren’t much longer than they used to be. By some measures, average functional life spans in the U.S. have started to decline.
Ouch. That’s difficult to accept, but everything we hear — and my own eyes — tell me it’s probably true.
Each chapter in the book starts with a similar kind of myth-vs.-fact pairing, but the one that really got my attention as I read it was this one from the 11th chapter, titled “Recovery Is the Training”:
MYTH: If we want to become stronger and healthier, we must exert at the highest capacity we can tolerate.
FACT: Technically, it’s only during recovery that we become stronger and healthier. Adequate sleep, nutritious food, and relaxed, comfortable movement are the most important contributors to this process.
I grew up in the 80s, when phrases like “no pain, no gain” first became popular. Even though I know I shouldn’t subscribe to it, the fact that it was in the atmosphere I grew up in, in the water I was swimming in (to borrow David Foster Wallace’s famous metaphor) means I still have to tell myself it’s okay not to push too hard — that I don’t need to punish myself when I exercise.
In fact, we need to pursue the exact opposite of that to become better runners, to get healthier and improve our fitness level.
As Cucuzzella writes:
Racing is optional. But rest and recovery after any vigorous activity is mandatory. Recovery is the time when your body repairs and strengthens, which doesn’t happen when you are exerting. Recovery should not become a routine of rehabilitation and physical therapy.
The body has marvelous built-in mechanisms for adaptation, repair, and remodeling. When stresses are applied to the bones, tendons, and muscles, the body grows stronger as the repair work does its magic. But this presupposes the right amount of stress (also known as eustress), and also adequate time for the rebuilding process.
I’ve bolded the sentence above to emphasize the point I think he’s trying to make: that recovery isn’t something that comes from a device or a bottle. We can’t impose it on our bodies. Rather, recovery is something they do naturally, on their own, without our conscious effort. And what our bodies need in order to recover are two things: time and rest.
Cucuzzella illustrates this with a drawing in the chapter he calls the “adaptation curve” — which I’ve taken a photo of with my phone, so please forgive the slight angle 😃
Every time we run, every time we exert ourselves, we dip a little (or a lot) into the trough shown above. Recovery brings us out of the trough, and up to a higher plateau of fitness.
That’s a key point, Cucuzzella adds — we shouldn’t seek out peaks. Rather, we should train so that we can reach higher and higher plateaus; levels we can reach and remain at, rather than peak and fall from:
A plateau can be described as level high ground. Many of us never reach it. If too little recovery time is allowed, the body doesn’t fully recover. That’s overtraining. Repeatedly, I see proponents of the “no pain, no gain” approach who simply aren’t able to maintain a high level of performance. As Arthur Lydiard said, “Train, don’t strain.” He understood and respected hormesis, or eustress: carefully dosed levels of stress, combined with rest, result in growth and success.
As I think about this, I am reminded of a conversation with my stepdaughter from this past weekend, when we were driving back home from a week away for spring break. She shared with me some of the travails she’d been having with a boy she’s been dating, where they are in their relationship and where it might all go.
Of course, as she was telling me all of this, I remembered my own experiences with dating when I was younger. What it was like the first time I fell in love, and what it was like to get over a broken heart. (Especially that first one — my God, is there anything more painful in the world?!!)
I shared with her things it took me a long time to learn: that we all have anxieties and insecurities, and it takes us time to learn that despite them, we’re going to be okay. Trouble is, you don’t know this when you’re 17.
(Okay, you probably don’t know it when you’re 27 or even 37, either. By 47, you’re starting to get the picture. But I digress…)
We only learn, it seems, through experience — that as painful as the current moment might feel, you will come out on the other side with more knowledge about yourself, who you are, and what you want.
Just like Cucuzzella describes, we need those experiences of eustress to show us how to manage those feelings, anxieties and insecurities we all feel when we’re in a relationship — going through them, and then recovering from them, is how we learn how to tame them.
(Maybe we never fully learn how to tame them, actually — but at least we can try!)
Anyway, I hope that makes sense! 😃 I hope you’re having a lovely week and getting out to run in the spring weather — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going.
Our training plan for this week
How did last week’s 10-miler go for you? Double digit miles is big; if you were able to get them in, you should be feeling a well-earned sense of accomplishment. Ready to do it one more time?
Here’s our miles for the upcoming week:
Thursday, April 14 — 4-5 miles/40-50 minutes
Saturday, April 16 — 10 miles/100 minutes
Sunday, April 17 — 2 miles/20 minutes
Tuesday, April 19 — 5-6 miles/50-60 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you and if you have any questions about the plan, your running, or anything else 👍
Discount for the Madison Marathon
Our friends at Wisconsin’s Madison Marathon shared with me a race discount code they’ve created just for subscribers to The Half Marathoner!
Use the code Half15 to save $15 off the: