Let's start by defining some terms.
Stress = the body's reaction to physical or psychological threat, challenge or barrier.
Recovery = a period of rest or reduced stress which provides purpose to stress.
Training = the balance of stress and recovery.
During training, the goal is to accumulate fatigue (cumulative fatigue), recover and adapt. Recovery during a training block may be as simple as incorporating a rest day, improving the quality of your sleep, cross training in lieu of running or focusing on quality nutrition. But what does recovery look like post race? And how do you know when to return to running after a goal race? Let's break down the types of stress to consider.
Your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and joints all require adequate recovery to ensure you're not in danger of overuse injuries such as strains, tears, and stress fractures. While on one side of the coin it's normal to experience post-race soreness and fatigue, knowing when to return to running is hazier on the other side. How quickly you return to training will depend on your individual physiology, your training history on a macro scale and your training load on a micro scale leading into your goal event. A simple test jog should reveal how far through the recovery cycle you are, and what your needs are moving forward.
Hormones and the nervous system
Where structural stress manifests in tangible physical feelings, hormonal stress and the nervous system's response to stress presents a more complex discussion. Post-race, your body can present high levels of the stress hormone 'cortisol', reduced levels of hormones like testosterone and altered blood markers such as a reduction in iron. If you're unsure, take a blood test and speak to a doctor who understands you and your circumstances.
Possibly the lesser discussed component of recovery is related to the central nervous system and its components. Running anywhere from 8-24 hours + places a huge load on the nervous system and its relationship with other systems of the body such as the skeletal system, cardiovascular system, and the brain. Hallucinations, issues with balance, and the way we absorb nutrition are just some of the byproducts associated with nervous system fatigue.
It's very common to see people feeling good after a race and return to training too quickly, resulting in overreaching and overtraining. When we defined recovery at the top of the page, we spoke about providing purpose to stress. Stress and fatigue are only useful and purposeful components of training if they are combined with recovery. A lack of recovery results in nonfunctional training, or basically a whole lot of stress with no purpose. Adaptation = stress + recovery.
The big take home message here? Prioritise rest and give your body the best chance of bouncing back to full health. If in doubt, take additional rest and return to training cautiously. Recovery is apart of training and not the absence of it.
Returning to running checklist
Keep your effort easy and avoid any unnecessarily periods of elevating your heart rate.
Monitor structural stress and check in with yourself on a day to day basis.
Ensure you're getting adequate sleep. Without sleep, we don't adapt.
Ensure you're getting adequate nutrition. Nutrition is a key component of the recovery cycle.
Don't force things. If things don't feel right, back away and apply your focus to other elements of recovery.
If you respect your efforts and respect your body, you will have years of quality training and racing ahead of you.