I’d like to share a training concept that most novice female runners, or novice runners in general probably do not include in their training regimen. In fact, most experienced runners know the importance of what we’re going to discuss, but fail to implement it into their training. You are probably guessing its core strength; which is true, however prior articles that have been published by Buffalo Rehab have hopefully hammered that point into your brain. Actually it is something that most active moms who are juggling work, raising kids, maintaining housework, groceries, etc never think of…recovery. Subconsciously you may be thinking, “Ha! Like I have the time to rest.” Well recovery is an important concept for females who are avid runners. Recovery allows your muscles, nervous system, and glycogen stores to reboot so you can run efficiently the next time you lace up.
Recovery is an undervalued discipline in the running community. Too often runners run themselves out of running. There’s the collective understanding in the endurance world that more is better. If 30 miles showed me ‘x’ results then 40 miles will be so much better, right? It’s something we see all too often in the clinic. Runners increase their total mileage every week or continually sustain a high volume without a dedicated recovery week. Recovery weeks are vital to prevent injury, overtraining, and to see consistent improvement in your endurance. Before you start rolling your eyes at me let’s review why a recovery week is so important, primarily for female runners.
Why Do I Need a Recovery Week?
The short answer is ligamentous laxity. Our ligaments are found throughout the body, providing passive structural support. Unfortunately, during menses estrogen levels can cause a generalized laxity, increasing the risk of injury to female athletes. One study found that 25/37 female athletes had non-contact ACL tears the day before and after their menses (2). A non-contact ACL injury typically occurs when landing from a jump or cutting while running; where forces drive the tibia past the point the ACL can manage; resulting in a tear. Another study looked at several research articles that looked at the occurrence of ACL tears/laxity associated with menses. This study looked at 12 different research articles; with 9/12 articles showing a significance of ACL tears or laxity within the first two weeks of the menstrual cycle (3). Although running doesn’t involve cutting and has a nearly non-existent risk for ACL tears, estrogen will affect your ligaments globally, not just the knee. So in the same way your menses effects knee stability, the same occurs at the hips, pelvis, and low back. Without the added stability through your ligaments, your risk for an overuse injury increases.
When Should I Plan A Recovery Week?
Considering the strong link between menses and ligamentous laxity; it makes sense to time up your recovery week with your menses. Especially if you feel a little “off” or clumsy during your menses. Other considerations you may want to make is to not engage in any new explosive activities that you are not accustomed to during your menses week. This would include activities involving jumping or activities that involved pivoting or changing of directions while running. Last but not least; ligaments are important to resist motion in a joint—they provide passive stability; however; your muscles surrounding your joints are your best defense against injury. Muscles provide active stability and control/decelerate forces exerted on your joints. So if you are prone to ligamentous laxity then your best defense is a strong core (I couldn’t resist emphasizing the core one more time!).
Structuring Your Recovery Week
A recovery week is typically part of a four week training cycle. The first three weeks involve gradually increasing mileage, speed or frequency (no. of runs) each week. The fourth week would be considered a recovery week. The recovery week involves running at a decreased level of intensity, speed or distance. A good rule of thumb is to cut mileage by 40-50%. For example, a runner averaging 50 miles a week would run 25-30 miles during their recover week. One method of a 4 week cycle is the step method (see image).
Don’t worry about declining fitness during your recovery weeks. It’s not a concern. Recovery weeks allow for your body to heal and regenerate, allowing for your muscles to rebuild and refill energy stores. When you apply a certain level of stress the body’s response is to supercompensate to prevent future fatigue and breakdown (1). The body will supercompensate… that is if you let it. Recovery allows your body to over compensate in healing and the building of tissue, anticipating future stress you’re looking to apply through running (1).
At the point of supercompensation you want to add the stimulus again (running) in order to continue to improve your performance. If done properly your performance will continue to improve. However if you continue to increase your running intensity or mileage (or never change your intensity/mileage) without the proper rest then your performance and health will suffer.
The hardest part of a recovery week is wrapping your head around it. Running is encompassed with numerous mental aspects. Thoughts of declining fitness can lead you to bail on this important piece of training. So remember to improve your active stability through strength training, while pairing your recovery week during menses, a time when you’re more vulnerable to injury.
1. Bompa, Tudor O. Periodization. Theory and Methodology of Training 4th Edition. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. 1999.
2. Slauterbeck, JR, Fuzie, SF, Smith, MP et al. The Menstrual Cycle, Sex Hormones and Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury. J. Athl Train. 2002:37;275-278.
3. Hewett, T, Zazulak, B, Myer, G. Effects of the Menstrual Cycle on Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Risk. A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Volume 35. Issue 4. 2007. P. 659-668.