I started swimming competitively when I was 3-years-old and have always loved putting in the work to improve my times. When I finished college in 2011 and moved to California, I knew that it would be difficult for me to continue to get faster at swimming. I wanted a new challenge, and so, I decided to pick up running.
In the early years of running, it was easy to progress because I was a beginner and had so much to learn. But, more recently, I plateaued and had trouble improving, even though I felt I had the potential to go faster. I had tried a few times to qualify for the Boston Marathon and came up short. This year, I felt determined to finally hit the goal – qualify for Boston.
So here’s how I dropped 20 minutes off my best marathon time and qualified for Boston by focusing on rest and recovery.
But Resting is Hard
I’m a super high energy, type-A person – AKA, I’m horrible at relaxing. But, because of years of doing sports myself and coaching others, I know that tapering before a race is important for optimal performance, so I tried to give it a shot before my most recent marathon.
What is Taper?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get stronger during exercise. During a workout, your muscles are literally tearing. They rebuild and get stronger during rest, including sleep. During marathon training, things your body needs to perform are depleted, including glycogen (carbs your muscles can access easily for energy) and hormones. Some runners even become iron deficient because when feet pound the pavement stride after stride, red blood cells are often damaged and burst from the impact.
Again – you don’t get stronger during exercise.
Marathon training is physical stress imposed on the body. Tapering is used in the last three weeks before a race and means cutting back on exercise to recover more so that your body is primed to perform on race day. It is easier said than done, because unlike going for a 20-mile run, it doesn’t feel like making progress.
What Happened to My Body in Training and Taper?
During training, I started off running 15 miles per week, and worked my way up to 40 miles per week over the course of a few months. My average heart rate while sleeping for March and April during training was consistent at 59.6 bpm (beats per minute). During my most intense weeks of training, my sleeping HR went up by over 2-bmp on average. It’s normal to have an elevated heart rate when training hard because the body has to work harder during sleep to recover, but too much of an increase can indicate overtraining. During taper right before the race, my average heart rate while sleeping dropped from there by 7.6 bpm down to 54.2.
I was ready.
So How Did I Do That?
During taper, I did several things to relax and give my body it’s best chance:
- Decreased running mileage significantly from 40 to ~15 miles per week.
- Relaxed mornings, reading, and drinking coffee on the couch with my dog.
- Restorative yoga at Equinox (they should rename this class Best Nap Ever).
- CBD beverages to wind down before bed, instead of wine or beer.
- Since my last marathon, I introduced meditation into my life, which has helped with breathing and focus.
Because I was resting well, I was able to get better sleep without spending more time in bed. My minutes of sleep increased only 4%, but minutes of deep sleep (measured by HR dip from daytime) increased by 30%.
I traveled to Oregon for the Newport Marathon and felt amazing on race day (which is not normal for me – I consider it a rare treat). After failing to qualify for Boston in my last three marathons, I beat my best time by 20 minutes and the Boston qualifying time by 8 minutes. Because I felt so rested and energized, I was smiling the entire race, which packs an added bonus – researchers have found that those who smile while running are 2% faster than those who don’t smile. Over the course of 3.5 hours, that makes a big difference – 2% is over 4 minutes.
What Happened After?
I may have just made the race sound easy, but it wasn’t. After kicking my own butt and celebrating with several beers and wine tastings (side note: Oregon wine country is beautiful), my average HR the night after the race was 71. This may sound alarmingly off my baseline, but it’s normal to have elevated HR after extreme physical exertion – and the alcohol certainly didn’t help.
If you’re wondering how my heart rate went back down over the following weeks, I’m afraid I can’t shed light on that – I did a digital detox and stopped wearing my Apple Watch. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this race, it’s that I am at my best when I rest as hard as I train.
Do you have a story about recovery or performance? Share with us what worked for you.