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The Balancing Act of Racing and Recovery

As a former running coach, endurance athlete and running medicine PT, I have found over the years that a majority of athletes likes training and loves racing but hates taking time off. I completely understand where you are coming from! Training and racing can be exhilarating, rewarding and downright therapeutic.

However, if you are not thinking about how you recover, or if you are not putting off days on your training schedule, then you are setting yourself up for injury and hurting your performance. Recovery and off days need to be part of your training plan for long-term success.

When we train appropriately, our muscles, joint, ligaments and tendons all get stronger, thicker and larger. Our hearts and lungs pump more effectively. We become faster and stronger athletes: well-oiled machines.

Overload, or functional over-reaching, is important to achieve these desired effects of training. Once we recover from the difficult training session or workout, we will be better for doing it. However, it is a balancing act. If we do not give our bodies enough recovery time, or if we under recover between difficult training sessions or races, we will inevitably break down. This breakdown can be defined as non-functional over-reaching or overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining syndrome is defined as the accumulation of training and non-training stress alike [1]. This means that increased stress at home, in your job or in any aspect of your life can and does contribute to overtraining and poor performance. Have you ever noticed how some of your worst workouts are when you are overwhelmed by deadlines or commitments or that your injuries occur when you have too much going on in your life? Chronic psychological stress is correlated with poor muscle recovery after strenuous exercise [2].

So……what happens to your body when you don’t incorporate rest and recovery into training?

  • Increased cortisol levels (stress hormone)

  • Decreased human growth hormone (needed for muscle repair)

  • Induced systemic inflammatory process, which often leads to an increase in infections such as colds [3]

  • Heart rate increase (HR slowly increases over time. Check your HR every morning 5 minutes before you get out of bed and it keeps increasing overtime, it is a warning sign. Resting HR should decrease as we become fitter.)

  • Fractures and tendon injuries

  • Increased overall body fatigue

  • Loss of concentration and mental fatigue

  • Poor performance at work AND in events

  • Overall disturbance of basic metabolic function

  • Muscle breakdown exceeds repair

As you can see, there are many reasons to reconsider how you are training. If you want to improve your performance and decrease the likelihood of injury, then you need to learn how to improve your recovery. Take recovery and rest seriously. Here’s how you can start.There are two types of recovery: active recovery, which occurs right after training or racing, and long-term recovery.

Promoting active recovery:

  • Cool down. Make sure after you train or do a race you are cooling down enough to bring your heart rate below 110 BPM

  • Drink carbohydrate and protein drinks right after finishing a difficult workout or race to replenish your muscle glycogen and improve synthesis [4].

  • Try massage. Short-term muscle soreness and fatigue has been found to improve with massage (pneumatic compression) immediately post-run or race, but the evidence hasn’t show long-term improvements in recovery [5].

  • Walk, do yoga or get on your bike for an easy ride

Promoting long-term recovery:

  • Train and race for the weather. If it is hot adjust your pace. If you keep pushing your body at an 8:00min pace in 90 deg. weather and 70 deg. weather you will tax you body much more in the 90 deg. which will mean you may need more recovery days if you want to prevent injury or overtraining.

  • Make sure you are watching you rate of perceived exertion (how hard you feel like you are working) and Heart Rate. If they are both going up then it is probably a good time for taking a rest day [6]. 

  • Train smart. Don't train hard all the time. If you don't want to take a lot of rest days then make sure you are maintaining a good mix of difficult and easy days in your workouts. 

  • Be mindful of the stress in your life. If you know you have deadline approaching for work, consider choosing a race held after the deadline or commitment is fulfilled and/or modify your training load on more stressful weeks.

  • Take rest days. I mean it: take full days off during your training. Let your muscles, ligaments, bones and body systems recover from the hard work so that they can rebuild and remodel to become stronger and more efficient.

  • Sleep. Poor, abbreviated or disturbed sleep doesn’t count. If you don’t get quality sleep, you will not reap any of the healing benefits it offers [7].

Hopefully this helps improve your training and performance! Recovery is about all the body systems so we need to seriously think about recovery as part of our training plan. 


1. Meeusen R, Duclos M, Foster C, Fry A, Gleeson M, Nieman D, Raglin J, Rietjens G, Steinacker J, Urhausen A. Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013; 45: 186-205. 2. Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period. J Strength Cond Res. 2014; 28: 2007-2017. 3. Neubauer O. Recovery after an Ironman triathlon: sustained inflammatory responses and muscular stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008; 104:417–426. 4. Niles E, Lachowetz T, Garfi J, Sullivan W, Smith J, Leyh B, Headley S. Carbohydrate-Protein Drink Improves Time to Exhaustion After Recovery from Endurance Exercise. JEPonline. 2001; 4(1):45-52. 5. Hoffman MD, Badowski N, Chin J, Stuempfle KJ. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Massage and Pneumatic Compression for Ultramarathon Recovery. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016; May;46(5):320-6. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6455. Epub 2016 Mar 23. 6. Buchheit M. Monitoring training status with HR measures: do all roads lead to Rome?Front. Physiol.,2014 7.Malhotra RK1. Sleep, Recovery, and Performance in Sports. Neurol Clin. 2017 Aug;35(3):547-557. doi: 10.1016/j.ncl.2017.03.002. Epub 2017 May 30.


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