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The secret to marathon training recovery?

As I write this I’m halfway through my 16-week London Marathon training plan. I’m torn between the feeling that eight weeks is simply not enough time to get race-ready and a different feeling that another eight weeks of training is quite of lot to endure. And it’s only going to get tougher!


I’m not long back from a 30k (18.5m) jaunt (maybe we should say ‘slog’) along the Thames starting at Tower Hill and ending in Ealing. A couple of weeks ago a similar group of us ran the length of the Circle Line (approx24k/16m – if you’re interested). These group runs during marathon training are invaluable. You’re running somewhere different which makes it a lot more interesting and you’re running with others. There’s a little bit of planning but it’s well worth it.

The relentlessly hot summer has been lovely, and I’ve enjoyed the sun most of the time, but it has meant for some tough long runs. It’s also been a challenge to carry enough water. I’m in the minority, but I’m avoiding a hydration pack – they make your back sweat like hell and you’re carrying extra weight I’d rather not have to. However, it has made me an increasingly informed expert on public drinking fountains in London. There are many more than you might think. Look at all these across Greater London! And there are plenty more not even on this map, including our local EHM Legacy drinking fountain in Lammas Park, Ealing, funded by those who have taken part in the Ealing Half Marathon.

But even with the abundance of free water, I must admit that at eight weeks in, I’m starting to feel it. People ask me how marathon training is going, and I usually pull some kind of pained expression. And then they say, but you’re doing well, you’re doing all the runs. I suppose that is true, I am doing all the sessions, but I don’t feel very lively. Maybe that’s really what it’s about. Doing the sessions, challenging yourself just enough not to break you but enough to create adaption and make you stronger. Not all the sessions are hard, I should add, and as a coach, that’s important to emphasis, but I’m not going to pretend I’m having an easy ride of it.


My last marathon was in 2015, although I trained for one in 2016 and pulled out with only three weeks to go. That was six years ago. I was in my thirties, not my forties. When I could survive on a lot less sleep than I can now. When I could drink more alcohol than I can now without regretting it the next day. When I decided I was going to really give this marathon a proper shot, I started thinking about what else I could do to combat the fact that I’m probably not going to recover as well as I used to from some of the harder sessions.


The first thing I knew I had to do was get regular massages. I’m lucky that the best sports massage I’ve ever had came from my one of my fellow Ealing Eagles Caroline Rush, so I knew I had that base covered. I can’t recommend her enough if you’re based in west London. I really notice the difference immediately after a good massage and it gets rid of that post-run stiffness.


But what else? In previous years I’ve sat in freezingly uncomfortable ice baths, done beetroot juice shots, religiously took an electrolyte tablet after a run and spend Sunday afternoons and evenings in expensive full length compression tights. I can’t honestly say that I have any idea if any of these have any impact on my recovery. I just threw everything at it.


I suppose there are some things you get better at as you get older and being cynical is one of them. I’d already read that ice baths were definitely not beneficial. The research is fairly decent, and at best it does nothing, at worse it could slightly hinder those crucial adaptations in our muscles that make them stronger.


In my search for the best recovery on offer I came across American runner and writer Christie Aschwanden’s book ‘Good to Go: How to Eat, Sleep and Rest Like a Champion’. What’s great about Christie is that she comes from the starting point that no new gimmick or even old recovery regime is good for you. She seeks scientific and unbiased proof. She tries out, visits, and politely enquires about a plethora of so-called recovery solutions. Some are pretty pricey too. From supplements galore, recovery pyjamas, recovery boots, infrared saunas, cryotherapy, even Epsom salt baths, she digs into the actual science and uncovers a lot of bunkum. Yes, most of the things we think are great for our running are simply not, or at best unproven to do anything. Sadly, there are also a few charlatans out there who are knowingly flogging you a gimmick when there is no evidence at all that their product works. Be sceptical, people. I certainly am now.


Happily, Aschwanden’s investigation did find one thing that was scientifically proven and to improve recovery. And even more happily it costs absolutely nothing. SPOILER ALERT: The secret to great recovery is sleep. Well sleep and rest. Arguably the same thing, let’s not quibble. So early nights and afternoon naps are not only good for you but encouraged. It’s when adaptations take place.


Now I feel I have the secret weapon to sporting success (I know, sleeping only relates to recovery – you still need to put in the miles!) I’m getting as much as I can get. Which I appreciate isn’t easy when life gets in the way, but we can only try.


Finally, I wouldn’t be the Perpetually Injured Runner if I didn’t give you an update on those pesky injuries. Here’s a quick rundown: 1) Left hip; still aches a bit after running but never hurts when I run so I don’t even count this as an injury anymore. 2) Left ankle; the old issue is back but has so far not managed to take over and is weirdly sometimes non-existent and at other times niggly but staying in check. 3) Right hamstring; I was very worried about this a few weeks ago and so I did plenty of hamstring work in the gym. I think this is paying off as it's not going away but not getting worse and it feels stronger. 4) Left quad/ITB; this was pretty painful about two weeks ago, especially on mid-week tempo runs and intervals. It was even too sore to do some strength work but ice, massage and eventually gym work seems to have nipped this in the bud. 5) Right foot plantar fasciitis; I’ve left the worse till last and it’s really quite sore. The sports doctor says don’t run through pain more than 4 or 5 out of 10. This is hovering around 3 or 4 and is leaving me limping afterwards. Three weeks into shockwave, I’m doing everything that I can, crossing my fingers, and sleeping (of course!)


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