Rest and Restoration for Better Performance

The following article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of ATRA Trail Times email newsletter:

By Stephen R. Santangelo

There are many training modalities based on sports science which are available for endurance athletes. Your age and level of fitness determines where on the scale from novice to elite you fall. Too often, running enthusiasts want to emulate the elite athletes by replicating what the elites do, thinking it will improve their own performance. In the long run, this is not true and often will lead to a loss of enthusiasm and poor performance.  Why does this happen? There’s a simple answer, the lack of rest and restoration.

You have to understand elite and professional athletes train and compete as their profession. They are surrounded by an extensive support network such as monetary sponsors, massage therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, trainers, coaches, nutritionists, etc. Few of us enjoy these luxuries and therefore we must take rest and restoration seriously and incorporate it into our training regimens weekly.

Often the novice runner with three years or less of solid training can benefit from complete rest days which include no physical activity. It can be two to three days per week.

The intermediate runner with more than three years of training and competitions can easily take off one day per week with a day of active rest. Active rest is where one participates in an activity with a low level of intensity and has nothing in common with trail running, such as volleyball or badminton.

For the seasoned trail runner, both active rest and restoration days are advised. On a weekly basis this will be determined by current training intensity and level of competition as well as frequency of competition. 

Restoration training is based upon hormone production and the Central Nervous System (CNS). First, consider hormone production. During a continuous activity — ie: trail running —within 40-45 minutes testosterone begins to fall off. At 60 minutes testosterone completely shuts down. This causes cortisol, which often has a negative impact on our anatomy. When cortisol production is high the adrenal glands enter a state of fatigue. Next, the pituitary gland’s production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), is lowered along with hypothalamus hormone production. This in turn directly affects the thyroid’s production of T-3 and T-4. You can clearly see how the domino effect occurs and how all hormone production is interlinked. What does all this mean? Without a detailed scientific explanation, it’s like hitting the wall in a marathon at the 20-mile mark.

When your hormonal time clock is out of whack your CNS goes into survival mode. The CNS is divided into 3 functional parts, the PSN (parasympathetic nervous system), SNS (sympathetic nervous system) and the ENS (enteric nervous system). The ENS has little effect on training and plays a minor role in recovery. Our focus is on the PNS and SNS. Think of these two entities as the accelerator (SNS) and the brake (PSN). In order to have complete restoration these two functions must be balanced.

Signs of imbalances are dark circles around the eyes, lack of interest in training, lack of enthusiasm, restless sleep, elevated resting heart rate, constant fatigue, sugar cravings, weight gain or weight loss, and waking up in the morning not feeling rested. 

The first step is to determine your resting heart rate when you are in optimal condition. Monitor your RHR on a weekly basis. When your RHR is more than 10 beats per minute above normal you have entered the fatigue zone. Your body is not recovering. When this happens, monitor your training based upon duration and heart rate. Take one day off completely from physical activity. The following day’s workout must be a “jog,” not a run and it must be kept under 40 minutes; 35 minutes is good for men, 30 minutes for women. During this jog your heart rate needs to be kept between 120-130 beats per minute. This safe zone is essential for the nervous system to balance; not too much gas and not too much riding the brake.

During this time a chiropractor and/or a massage therapist will help to speed recovery. It’s not uncommon that an athlete will take up to two weeks for complete restoration. You will have to maintain this “jog” cycle until your resting heart rate is back to normal for at least three days. You will monitor your sleep as well, so, pay attention that you’re getting a solid night’s rest and waking up energized. Should you not feel rested and your energy level doesn’t kick in until 2-3 hours after waking, take another day off before you “jog” again. You will also monitor your food intake to be sure it’s back to normal without any cravings. These will be your indicators your hormonal time clock has been restored.

As you age and you have years of running behind you, complete rest, active rest and restoration will become the mainstay of training. This is essential for longevity in the sport and maintaining a healthy and vigorous lifestyle.