FOR YEARS, I LOOKED at running and biking as escapes. Sometimes I went easy; sometimes I went hard. Mostly I tried to have fun and forget about my new mortgage payments. Warming up and cooling down? Not likely. With a job and a toddler, I was just lucky to find time for my 30-minute workouts. Post-training snacks consisted of cookies, frozen burritos, or whatever was in the fridge.
I was active, yes, but at age 34, I had a host of nagging painssore knees, creaky hips, a tight lower backeven though I'd never suffered a major injury. So last fall, when I decided to run the Denver half-marathon, I paid a visit to Neal Henderson, physiologist and exercise guru at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM). His diagnosis: Like most amateur athletes, I wasn't allowing my body to recover properly.
"Exercise is a stressor," Henderson told me. "The right amount of stress creates a positive adaptation"that is, you become stronger and faster"but if there's too much stress, you go the other way." Dealing with that stressrecoveringis a widely misunderstood but utterly essential aspect of fitness. Henderson spoke of pro-athlete clients who'd overtrained and ended up injured and depressed. Average Joes like me, on the other hand, get only a few hours per week to work out. We go hard, don't allow time for recovery, and end up underperforming or supporting armies of physical therapists and chiropractors. "It's not the workout that makes you better," Henderson says. "It's the recovery."
In theory, recovery is simple: Eat and rest properly after your workouts and you'll stay injury-free and be able to go faster and longer on race day. But this is a lot harder in practice, requiring monk-like self-discipline. When I showed up at BCSM, Henderson subjected me to a series of treadmill tests that measured my heart-rate zones and lactate thresholdthe point at which maximum effort can be sustained for about an hour. Based on the results, Henderson said I should do the bulk of my training at a low intensity. This was easy on the bodywhen I stuck to Henderson's recommended workout intensities I could do long runs without feeling very tired afterwardsbut tough on the ego. I was consistently passed by people twice my age, people pushing strollers, people wearing cotton.
Other workouts consisted of easy runs punctuated by three-minute high-intensity intervals. Henderson hounded me about the importance of recovery between those intervalsslowing down so that my body would be prepared for the next effort. As for pre- and post-workout routines, it turns out that a proper warm-up and cooldown are far more important than the half-assed stretching I'd grown accustomed to. Before and after every run, I allowed five to ten minutes for slow jogging and walking, which helped my body transition between resting and exercising heart rates.
My diet needed a makeover, too. Kathleen Farrell, BCSM's sports dietitian, insisted that right after my morning runs I eat carbohydrate-rich meals, like oatmeal with skim milk and fruit, to replenish lost glycogen stores. This was less fun than replenishing bacon stores, but I never felt sluggish after training runs. And the most dramatic change I made: I ran only three or four days a week. This allowed me time for warming up and cooling down, and also for hanging out with my son.
Over the next six weeks, I had exactly zero injuries, and I never felt lethargic. And this was without following Henderson's training program to the letter: I missed workouts and freelanced, doing a couple more hard intervals or resting longer between intense efforts now and then. But I always paid attention to cooling down and refueling immediately after a workout. And on race day this past October, I set a personal record, improving on my previous half-marathon time by seven minutes. After the run, I headed directly for the beer tent and ordered a pale ale. I don't think that was on Farrell's list of optimal recovery drinks, but it sure tasted good at 9 a.m. And at least it was full of carbs.