Take a Break
A few years ago this column looked at the topic (Article #33), relative to the healing of and recovery from injuries. I would now like to look at the importance of rest relative to the prevention of injury.
Last week I had the privilege of accompanying John Itati, an elite runner from Kenya, to the Enders Road Elementary School in Manlius, where he spoke to a group of 4th graders two days before the Syracuse Festival of Races. John, who would go on to win the men’s 5k in a course record time of 13:27, shared with the young students his running history, his training and diet strategies, and most important, his genuine love for his sport. He then graciously answered a multitude of questions (“My father runs 45 miles per hour; can you run that fast?”) that entertained, educated, and encouraged the students.
The students, though, weren’t the only ones who had the opportunity to learn from this exceptional runner. To my delight, I had John all to myself during the 20 minute drive to and from the school, during which I peppered him with all sorts of queries, ranging from his training regimen to his racing schedule. One area of particular interest to me pertained to the subject of rest. I told John that I remembered reading a few years ago that the Kenyan runners were known for taking an entire month off – as in, no running at all – following the fall racing season. I asked him if this was true, half expecting him to laugh and inform me that it was a bit of an exaggeration, but instead he responded, “Absolutely! You must do this if you wish to avoid becoming stale, or worse, injured.” He went on to say that after four weeks rest, the Kenyans resume training (“starting from zero”) with a very gradual increase in distance and intensity, as if novice runners. And no, he said, they have no concern that this extended period of inactivity will in any way adversely affect their overall fitness or performance come racing season. Just the opposite, he said – “We’re fresh and ready to go.”
I explained to John that, given the difficulty I have when trying to get runners here to take a break when injured, I can’t imagine being able to convince them that a regularly self-imposed moratorium might be beneficial over the long term. (Of course, first I have to convince myself…) Part of the problem is the lack of direct evidence to support the notion that a prolonged rest period lowers one’s risk of injury. If we look at what is known about exercise physiology and injuries, however, we can reasonably draw some conclusions that would bolster this concept.
For example, most investigators agree that hard training and racing causes some degree of damage to muscle tissue. The exact nature of this injury, as well as the consequences over the long term, are still being debated in the medical literature, but there is fairly convincing evidence that significant changes occur in muscle tissue on the cellular level. If those changes are positive ones – i.e., the body adapts to the stress applied by making the muscle stronger or increasing its endurance capabilities – we call that the training effect. But if the damage is too great, and if the stress to the muscle tissue continues daily without a break to allow for repair, we then see a negative result, with strength and stamina decreasing. We also know that in cases of acute injury to muscle the typical healing time generally ranges from three to six weeks. The time frame for healing of more chronic muscle damage is less certain, but probably falls close to that.
Add these facts together and it should be more acceptable that the Kenyans’ approach to hard training, racing, and resting makes good scientific sense. But even if the science is a bit controversial, they’re the best in the world; you want to argue with them?