Posts Tagged ‘marathon recovery’

There is a lot of talk about the importance of recovery with running.  This is especially true if you are training to run a marathon or other competitive race.  A common word of advice for runners is get plenty of sleep in order to facilitate the recovery process.  However, the quality of sleep we get may be something that we pay little attention to.  We sometimes wake up in the morning still feeling tired, like we didn’t get enough sleep.  It may be because we didn’t get enough sleep but it could also be the result of poor sleep hygiene.  In the modern world, we have grown accustomed to having distractions all around us through the day – lights, cell phones, computers, traffic and various types of stress.  At night, we may minimize these distractions.  While there are some distractions we can’t control, we allow others to remain, and they could be having a greater negative impact on us than we think.


Sleep hygiene includes the pre sleep routine or habits that we perform in the last few hours before going to bed.  It also includes our sleep environment.  Better sleep hygiene leads to higher quality and more restful nighttime sleep, which in turn helps us be more alert and less fatigued the following day.

Sleeping well helps maintain health, reduce stress, rebuild tissues after exercise, improve memory and replenish energy stores to name a few.  It can also improve performance indirectly.  It has been found that a tired person is less pain tolerant than when they have had a good night of sleep.  The goal of this post is to make people more aware of habits that might have a negative affect on sleep and how to avoid them.

When we sleep, we continually cycle in and out of 4 stages of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep followed by Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, each stage of REM sleep lasts longer than the previous.

Stage 1 of NREM sleep is the light, drifting off stage where we are easily woken up.  Through stages 2 and 3, we continue falling into a deeper state of sleep as brain activity slows down.  Stage 4 of NREM is where our bodies do most of the repair and regeneration work, as well as strengthen the immune system.  Brain activity is very low at this time and a person is very hard to wake.  The last stage of sleep is the famous REM sleep.  Brain activity increases, our eyes move in quick random movements while muscle activity in our limbs is inhibited.  Most of our dreams occur in, but are not limited to this stage.

Pre-Sleep Routine

Sleep experts suggest establishing a consistent pre-sleep routine at night.  This includes turning off the television at least an hour before going to bed, doing your nighttime tasks in the same order and going to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends.

The following have also been found to disrupt sleep and should be avoided 4-6 hours before going to bed if you’re feeling chronically tired: alcohol, heavy meals, caffeine, excessively spicy and sugary foods.  While it’s not recommended to go to bed with a full stomach, an empty stomach is also not optimal.  A light snack that contains the amino acid Tryptophan will improve sleep.  The most common foods with Tryptophan are:  Bananas, turkey, seafood, milk (animal & soy), nuts & seeds, eggs, cheese.

Light reading (nothing work or school related) 20-30 minutes, somewhere other than bed, helps take your mind off the stress of the day and slow your brain down.

Once in bed, if you’re not able to fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of the bed and find something else to do that will make you feel relaxed.  If possible, do this in another room. Your bedroom should be where you go to sleep. It is not a place to spend idle time when you’re bored. Once you feel sleepy, go back to bed.

The Sleep Environment

even light from this can disrupt sleep

even light from this can disrupt sleep

Light:  Researchers have recently discovered that our eyes have structures (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGC)) that have the specific task of detecting light to regulate our circadian rhythms.  Some people and animals that are blind maintain the ability to sync their behavior to the daylight because of these structures.  These ipRGC’s are sensitive to very small amounts of light.  Even the light from an alarm clock is enough for the brain to get the signal – ‘it’s still light out,’ which prevents our brain from fully resting.

Darkness triggers the production of melatonin, a hormone that in turn regulates sleep/wake cycle.  A person may be perfectly capable of falling asleep during the day or with a light on, but our brain does not produce the levels of melatonin that help us enter the deep sleep mode where our bodies are most efficient at repair.  Over time, this wears away at our bodies causing us to feel sluggish, unmotivated, irritable, chronically tired etc.

noreadinbedComputer screens and televisions emit high levels of blue light which is one of the wavelengths that the ipRGC’s are most sensitive to.  One way to improve sleep hygiene is to avoid looking at lighted screens at least an hour before going to bed.  Additionally, using minimal lighting around the house before bedtime will help increase the production of melatonin and help you fall asleep faster.  Any light in the bedroom, even the glow from a charging cell phone can be detected by the ipRGC’s in your eye and cause decreased melatonin production.  A completely dark room is recommended to get the best quality sleep, or try a sleep mask.  If you have to get up in the middle of the night, use a dim flashlight and try to avoid turning lights on.

Sound:  Falling asleep with the T.V. or radio on is a bad idea.  Our sense of hearing is one of the last senses to ‘shut down’ during sleep.  Similar to exposure to light, we are usually able to slip into the sleep state with a T.V. on, but our brain does not enter a deep sleep because it’s continually working to process the sound, especially if it’s conversation.  White noise (radio static, water running, AC unit, a fan) on the other hand can be a benefit to sleeping because it can drown out ambient noise.  Our brain can not separate out any one part of white noise and eventually disregards the sound, allowing you to sleep.

Other Distractions:  Having a home office or other work space in the bedroom can indirectly sabotage sleep.  Most of us associate the computer with work of some sort, paying bills, homework or checking e-mail.  Seeing the computer on your way to bed can trigger the mind to begin thinking about work related topics instead of relaxing.  Again, your mind should associate your bedroom with relaxation and sleep.

The above recommendations are not meant to take the fun out of life, but give some direction toward better health by improving sleep quality.  If you are someone who always feels tired, evaluate your evening habits and try adjusting something.  Even making one or two small changes will help you sleep better.  Sleeping better means you recover from a race or tough workout more quickly and have a better chance of avoiding injuries.

Sleep well.

sleeping stickman

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14 Days after Boston:

With the Boston Marathon two full weeks behind me, my legs still feel like they’re still recovering.  I’ve been running 4-7 miles a day for the last week but have yet to feel the “spring” back in my legs.

Within 5 minutes of crossing the finish line at Boston, my quads and calves started tightening up and walking became very uncomfortable.  I must have looked pretty bad because I attracted the attention of several medical people who came up to me asking me if I was ok.  I could tell by the way they were looking at me that they didn’t care what I said, they were making their assessment based on how I responded.  If a person says they feel fine but are unable to fix their gaze on you, they’re not fine.  I might have been doing that because these people were pretty relentless.  I finally said to one of them that I could use some ice and they happily escorted me to the medical tent.  Given my pre-race history of calf and Achilles issues I knew I immediately needed to be proactive about recovery.  I wanted to get some ice on my calves and Achilles ASAP.  I sat down (finally!) and kept moving the ice bag around to various locations on my calves and Achilles, leaving the ice in one spot for no more than 15 minutes.

The next couple of days, as expected, are the worst for post marathon pain.  This is when the inflammation from the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is the greatest.  But it’s also a very important first step for the healing process.  Family and friends were incredibly entertained by watching me take a full minute to stand up or walk across a room.  And stairs!  To me, I felt like I should have had help from the fire department getting up and down the stairs.  It was suggested that tickets be sold to watch me negotiate stairs…the “down stairs without a railing show” would undoubtedly get the highest price.

rocky surf

retreating from the rocky surf

Since I had good results from the ice bath in the past I wanted to do that again, but this time include my quads.  One of the amenities of New England this time of year is very cold lakes and ponds.  I found a small lake and waded up to the top of my quads for 15 minutes.  A couple of concerned passers-by stopped to question whether I was doing this under my own free will and/or would I eventually need a flotation device.  Their concern quickly diminished once I told them I had just run the Boston Marathon.  While it was uncomfortable at the time, my legs felt much better afterward.  Since I was on Cape Cod I figured I should attempt wading into the ocean.  However the surf, adding insult to injury, was tossing many sizable rocks against my feet so I quickly abandoned that idea.

An active recovery is probably the best plan following a marathon.  But first, take the day after the marathon off, you deserve it.  Two days after the marathon, walking from 10-30 minutes, depending on how your legs feel, is a good way to begin the active recovery process.  Other options are light massage, easy cycling or swimming.  These activities increase blood flow to the muscles and facilitate the healing process.  I suggest people increase time spent walking over the following few days, but as far as returning to running: wait until you feel like you could go for an easy run and then wait another 2-3 days before you actually do go running.  Case in point:  My legs were feeling pretty good by the following Saturday (5 days after the race).  I was playing with some dogs and tried to run across a grassy area with them.  Within 15 feet, my quads cramped up and it ended up setting my recovery back a couple of days.

calf foam roller

self calf massage with foam roller

I decided to go for my first post-Boston run 8 days after the race.  It was moderately uncomfortable and my quads were flirting with the cramping sensation again.  After another day of stretching and using the foam roller on my calves, the next run was much more tolerable.  Each successive run has been a little better, and the recovery from each run, shorter.

Up next:  In 4 weeks, the Champlain Valley of Vermont will be in full bloom and runners in the Key Bank Vermont City Marathon will be filling the streets of downtown Burlington.  My plan is to run the 2 person marathon relay with my friend Eli Enman (Kasie’s husband.)  Our team, cleverly named “On Track to Sleepy Hollow,” won the 2 person relay last year and we’ll attempt to defend our title for VCM 2011.

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