Scientific support for slacking off

April 25, 2007

Ever since incurring extensive muscle damage at the Mad City 100K, I’ve been wondering why my training didn’t protect me from this trauma. My tentative conclusion is that I may not have allowed my muscles to heal completely in between my long-and-hard runs, meaning that I may have gone into Mad City with a bit of residual damage that was exacerbated by the race itself.

So how did I arrive at this conclusion? Basically, I looked at a bunch of scientific journal articles concerning muscle damage and tried to relate their findings to my own situation (a general approach I call Research-Based Coaching).

The most interesting point I noticed in the research literature was that both recovery from and protection from muscle damage can occur over surprisingly long time scales. One study found microscopic evidence of incomplete healing in calf muscles 3 to 4 weeks after a marathon race (Warhol et al., American Journal of Pathology 118: 331-9, 1985). Another reported exaggerated heart rates while running and impaired jumping ability — most likely due to muscle damage — that persisted for 2.5 to 3.5 weeks after a 90K race (Chambers et al., Journal of Sports Science 16: 645-51, 1998). A third showed that as little as 25 minutes of downhill running can elevate markers of muscle damage for ten days or longer (Koller et al., Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 38: 10-7, 1998). But what really amazed me was that, once muscles recover from a single bout of eccentric exercise (in which the muscle fibers lengthen while attempting to shorten — a normal consequence of running, but especially downhill running), the damage is reduced after a similar bout 6 weeks later (Byrnes et al., Journal of Applied Physiology 59: 710-5, 1985) and in some cases up to 6-9 months later (Nosaka et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33:1490-5, 2001), although the protective effect does gradually taper off during this multi-month period (Nosaka et al., Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 30: 529-42, 2005).

While the last two studies focused on the biceps rather than leg muscles, the overall picture that emerges from articles like those cited above is the following. Muscles may take several weeks to recover fully from intense, damaging exercise, but this recovery process includes adaptations (the specifics of which I haven’t researched) that then help protect the muscles for additional weeks or months afterwards.

The implication for marathon and ultramarathon training is that extremely hard, muscle-shredding workouts and races should be separated by at least several weeks. Undertaking these efforts infrequently should allow complete recovery between them while still stimulating adaptation and enhancing protection during subsequent workouts/races.

Unfortunately, my schedule leading up to the Mad City 100K included a very hard, long road run every 2-3 weeks. On January 27th, I did 36.6 miles at a pace of 6:23 per mile; 3 weeks later, I did 41.5 miles at 6:22/mile; 2 weeks after that, I raced the Caumsett Park 50K at 5:57/mile; 3 weeks later; I did 29.3 miles at 6:24/mile; and 2 weeks after that came Mad City, where my pace was 6:20/mile at the start … and 8:20/mile by the end.

So I guess I should try trashing my muscles less frequently — perhaps by spreading my mileage over a greater number of runs and/or taking it easy on some of my long runs. That idea seems particularly appealing right now, as I sit here rubbing my quads — which are still sore from last Saturday’s trail run with Jurek — and looking ahead to the Miwok 100K on May 5th. After Miwok, let the slacking begin!<


  1. solid posting for solid muscles… many thanks professor Crowther!

  2. Greg,I think you might be up to something with your research into recovery times between long, hard runs. I doubt you get this published in Ultrarunner, though, as this finding does not help increase the number of participants in ultramarathons. (Overall participation can be increased by drawing more people into the sport, and by getting those in the sport to race more often.)Personally, I take more a "don't race often, but race hard" approach to competitions, though I have also run several races more as a training run.Unfortunately race timing does not always allow the ideal rest time in between hard races. For you it's Miwok 4 weeks after Mad City, for me it's the Duesseldorf Marathon 3 weeks after Boston.So I hope that we can't necessarily disprove those research findings, but at least show that there are exceptions to the rule."and looking ahead to the Miwok 100K on May 5th. After Miwok, let the slacking begin!"Do I interpret that correctly that, assuming you qualify for the WS 100 at Miwok, you plan to prepare for this late June race by slacking between early May and then?

  3. I think you may be unnecessarily "lumping together" training runs and races. I think they are different in two important ways: (1) Training runs don't trash you as much as races (compare your sub 6 min pace in a recent race vs. your 6:23 pace in a training run of similar distance), (2) you don't necessarily want to be fully recovered for each training run.I agree that it's a good idea to have sufficient recovery time between those long/hard training runs and races, but I'm not convinced that it's a good idea to have long periods (weeks?) of recovery between long training runs. Perhaps it's better to view the adaptation process as a pipeline: You get a benefit, say, four weeks after a very long training run, but you also have about four runs "in the pipe" at one time. When the dust settles at the end of your eventual taper you have the benefit of many more training runs than if you'd rested 3-4 weeks between runs.The training approach I was taught has the following framework: One runs a race-pace run each weekend, nominally at the end of a week having a respectable volume of mileage. These runs aren't long at first (maybe just a dozen miles) but get longer over a period of several months and peaking at the sorts of distances that you ran training for your 100K. I was also taught not to race during these months.I applaud your use of scientific literature to reason about improved training strategies and enjoy reading your blog. Congrat's on all your amazing accomplishments.respectfully,Balto

  4. Greg,Interesting post. While true the trauma of the muscles following eccentric exercise and marathon/ultrarunning has been shown to take several weeks to fully repare. Most of the studies written up are looking at the muscles following one bout to a (virgin) muscle. The studies that have done successive training/traumatic events to a the same muscles show drastically quicker recovery/repair following each successive bout. (Mainly due to less damage occurring with the same applied stimulus).One thing that I am sure of from my own "experiences of one"..are these. #1 Road running will cause a lot more damage to the muscles than trail running, and #2 I have never recovered "optimally" for a big race when my last long training effort was less than 3 weeks out from the key race. In any event good luck at Miwok and if you are reading Congrats Uli on the outstanding Boston run!

  5. Uli: Your interpretation is correct, assuming that we agree on the meaning of "slacking" in this context. What I mean is that I'll limit myself to one long, hard "race simulation" workout about midway between Miwok and Western States. Other key workouts will either be slower or shorter.

  6. According to the immortal Bud Fisher, nordic ski coach at Williams, "the only training worth doing is the training you recover from."

  7. There are a fair number of runners who believe that 6 weeks is generally necessary between hard efforts. As I'm not an elite athlete; nor do I play one on television – I've found that I need 6 weeks between runs of 50K or better to recover fully unless I'm just putzing along.

  8. Pfitzinger has some good information about recovery in his Advanced Marathoning.Good luck a Miwok. And if you get to WS I'll see you there. If you wait in Auburn for about 9 hours you can watch me cross the finish line. 🙂

  9. In the quest for World Domination, winning races is part of the training……and …."the only training worth doing is the training you recover from." posted by Zack G, seems a very nice distillate of wisdom to experiment with on an individual level…

  10. All that research and what your body is telling you (something even more imprtant than research) and you begin your last paragraph with "So I guess". Not to sound too grumpy, but I think your learning curve should be a lot steeper given what you know: You need to rest more. In one season in my cycling career, I rode 105 races and did not win a single one on the road. I was tired. The year I trained hard (did the cycling version of what you would call a workout)only when I felt fresh, I won races. All advice is free (and that is exactly how much it is usually worth)and mine is for you to break new ground and avoid the chronic overtaining that grips the competetive running community. And yeah, I'd be irritated too if a runner gave me a bunch of advice on how to race my bike. Good luck with the coming race.

  11. Have you been soaking your legs and feet in a tub of (ice) cold water after a hard run? This makes a noticable difference in recovery. I can understand how you may not have been able to obtain any ice cold water after your last race but certainly after a hard training effort you should be able to sit in the tub for 15 minutes while you eat, catch up on reading, work on sudoku, sing, answer e-mail (maybe not), etc.

  12. Hey Greg – Jay made a good point about ice baths. They do help speed recovery.Do you use a recovery drink/meal of any kind? Next time you go for a run with Jurek ask him about the book Vegetarian Sports Nutrition. There is some good information in there about post race / workout nutrition. I feel a lot better the next day when I get some carbs/protein in within 20 minutes of a hard workout.

  13. Good points all. I certainly regret doing a half-marathon with a sharp 1/2mi. downhill 9 days before Boston. But then again I've been a slacker since qualifying. It was edifying and comforting to read some of Paul Tergat's book, in which he noted having muscle soreness with downhill running a full 3 weeks after his record-setting effort in Berlin.And I second the glycogen-window comment from Tim; adequate muscle recovery occurs not just from rest and nutrition, but timing nutrition appropriately. Since insulin is just about the most anabolic hormone you have control of, use its effects to optimize muscle repair by slamming 50-plus grams of high-glycemic carbs and probably a little whey protein thrown in within 20-30 min of your workout's completion.-IanP.S- Phil is super-cute.

  14. The Montrail Cup site says the top three at the Sunmart 50M in December get automatic entry into WS100. Why are you going to Mi-Wok since you cleary won Sunmart?

  15. TrailRunner: According to the Montrail Ultra Cup rules, you're supposed to send in your WS entry form within a couple weeks of qualifying. I did not do that promptly enough, so I was told that I was out of luck unless I re-qualified at another race.

  16. Greg, I'm really sorry to hear that. You've clearly demonstrated you belong at Squaw in June. Sounds like Montrail doesn't want a "race" at WS, they'd rather hoard the spots they bought for their own use. Good luck at Mi-Wok.

  17. Thanks for the sympathy, TrailRunner. I believe the final decision rested with the race director, who can be praised for treating everyone equally by steadfastly sticking to the rules … and/or blamed for not making an exception for someone as wonderful as me.While the Ultra Cup still has some kinks that need to be ironed out — for example, the website doesn't say exactly how the series is scored, who gets prizes (just 1st overall, or 2nd and 3rd as well?), etc. — it is certainly a positive development that fast runners now have a mechanism for qualifying for WS even if they miss the November entry deadline.

  18. Hi, Greg. Heal fast!!!!! — Suzanne

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