This time of year, we talk a lot about recovery, but what does that really mean? Do we refrain from all physical activity? Do we change our diet (hello, holiday cookies!)? And when can we start thinking about next season?
We recently caught up with Darren Brown, who studies recovery for a living, at OOFOS Recovery Footwear. In 2008, Brown ran a sub-four minute mile, which is still the gold standard among professional distance and middle-distance runners. After the 2012 Olympic Trials, Brown retired from racing to coach his wife, Sarah, who still competes at the elite level at the 1500 and has made two world championship teams for the U.S.
Don't let Brown's retirement fool you though. Last year, Brown won the XTERRA Beaver Creek 20K, was second at the XTERRA Oak Mountain 20K, and was 6th at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in September. This year, he made the decision to switch from runner to triathlete. In his debut season, he went 1:52 in the Olympic distance on the roads and went 4:04 in his first half Ironman. We are excited to see him take his new sport onto the trails in the 2018 XTERRA season.
Q. Before we talk about recovery, let's talk about your sub-four-minute mile. You ran 3:59 in 2008?
A. When I ran for the University of Texas, one of my teammates was Leo Manzano, who would go on to win the silver medal in the 1500 at the 2012 Olympics. It was a blessing to be able to chase him around the track every day. He made me a better athlete. When I tell people I ran a 3:59 on my home track in my senior year of college, people are like, "Wow."
I like to tell them, "The reality is, my teammate Leo beat me by three seconds and broke the state record for the mile running 3:56."
I was really lucky to be there. Talent begets talent and raises everyone around it to perform better. It was very cool to be in Texas at that time. To this day, while I did love competing, the best part of the sport for me was the people I got to meet and who I'm still close with and friends with today. While my competitive days on the track have ended, that has continued. And it's a really cool part of being in endurance sports. There's a reason they call endurance sports, "a running community" or a "triathlon community."
Q. Why did you decide to switch to triathlon from track and road racing?
A. Two years ago, we had a surprise pregnancy that has brought us the lovely gift of a two-year-old now. During her pregnancy, Sarah was doing a lot of swimming and biking and that's when I started getting in the pool and getting on the bike. I'm only 18 months into doing all three parts of the triathlon but I've taken to it quickly and fallen in love with the community aspect of it and the competition.
Q. Let's talk about recovery. What is it and why is it important?
A. For me, recovery is a chance to do all the things that I would typically want to do, now that I have extra time that I don't need to dedicate and conserve energy for training with. Recovery is not as much a physical break from activity as it is a mental break from training and the opportunity to experience more of life.
I think it's very difficult for athletes to feel like they either have to look back at the past season or start planning for the next season when really, it's OK to be in a downtime. There's a time to review the past season and a time to plan for the next season, but you also need a time where you don't think about the next race. You don't think about the past race. You think about the flag football game your buddies are playing. You think about going to the playground and spending a few hours on the jungle gym, right? And you're not worried about how sore you're going to be for your next workout. Recovery is a time to re-prioritize fun.
Q. Does recovery happen just once a year, when your season ends?
A. Absolutely not. For me, the physical recovery process takes place year round. When you are building a base, you are placing so much load on your body and you are really trying to prep for the next season, and you need to give your body reprieves. So start the little things: start the stretching, start the self-massage, start the ice baths.
Then as you start to ramp up quality, you are in your highest risk time for injury because you have all this volume you've built up and you've started to add intensity on top of it. And that's where research shows you have the highest incidence of injury. That's when it's really important to focus on sleep and massage and stretching and strength training, and core.
When you are in peak conditioning working toward your goal race, when the intensity is so high, you want to make sure the body is firing on all cylinders. And recovery is a big aspect of that.
Q. What if it's hard for an athlete to take a break?
A. Don't get me wrong. I love the sport. And I love the training. And I geek out over looking at the splits. But I realize that just like with anything, you need a break. You just need to completely let it go for a period of time. I would say for most people, downtime should be no less than one week, and some people need four weeks. One of the best distance runners of all time, Bernard Legat, annually takes four weeks where he doesn't train.
One of the barometers I always set for when I want to get back to training is the morning I wake up and I either on autopilot walk downstairs and put on my running shoes or I wake up and the only thing I want to do is go for a run, but knowing I'm not going to go for more than ten minutes.
So it's not about the anxiety of a season that's ended or the anxiety about a season that hasn't started. No. You have to be excited about running for ten minutes. If ten minutes bums you out and you want to go for an hour, it means you are coming back too soon because it means you haven't been able to let go. You need to be able to accept that, hey, I'm going to go out there and be a super casual runner that does it for fun for a couple of days because I just want to run. You don't want to get in shape. You just want to run. There's a difference to me.
Q. What are your rules for recovery?
A. I don't look at training and recovery as two separate things. I look at them as a continuation of each other. Recovery is the bridge that covers the gaps between training sessions.
We've all heard the quote from John Wooden - "It's not what you do during the two hours in practice. It's what you do the other 22 hours of the day." I really take that to heart and think that having a goal of what you want to accomplish in a day makes sense. So you have your hour or your two hours for your workout. What else can you do in your day that will enhance your ability to do it again tomorrow?
For example, the fuel you put into your body is really important.
Q. How do you eat?
A. I follow simple rules. I keep my food as close to the source as I can possibly get. And I don't ignore cravings.
There's always a good choice to make. Whether you are in an airport or hotel, it comes down to making good choices. Eating as close to nature as you can.
The other rule is that I don't ignore cravings and sometimes those cravings don't seem like the best choice but I believe that our bodies always tell us what they want and need. If I have a craving for a big, juicy, cheeseburger, then I will order a big, juicy cheeseburger, because it means that I'm looking for some of those fats and proteins.
I don't give into cravings of sugar at every meal, but I also don't get those cravings because I've followed Rule #1, which is to stay as close to the source as possible. Your body will learn to adapt. And then it will give you signals. It will tell you what it wants.
Q. How does OOFOS and footwear fit into recovery?
A. After mental recovery and recovery from the inside out in terms of fueling, the next level is the structural system. That's made up of bones and soft tissue. I'm a huge believer that cold immersion therapy and hot/cold treatments are beneficial for reducing inflammation.
I'm also a believer that our body is responsive to manual therapies and manipulations. If you have a tight calf and spend just 15 minutes a day moving that tight calf, you don't have to be a certified massage therapist for there to be a benefit from this.
When you are putting in training, you are fatiguing your muscles. Your muscles support your joints and your bones. The weaker your muscles are, with every step that you take, you are no longer supporting those bony structures and cartilage in your joints. So you're going to get more compression and more impact.
Where OOFOS come in, is that we live on hard surfaces. OOFOS is based in OOfoam technology which is an impact absorbing technology. What the chemistry of the foam does is that it absorbs 37% more impact than traditional performance foam, like that in training shoes. Our foam will absorb impact and then will move with your foot and dissipate that impact of energy through the sole. So you no longer get that impact energy returned. You no longer get that compression. And you also avoid getting hot spots and pressure points on the bottoms of your feet.
OOFOS moves with your foot to create a natural foot pattern almost as if you were walking on compact sand or wet grass. That impact dissipates rather than focusing on your forefoot or your heel.
OOFOS and OOfoam were built as a means of recovery rather than performance - recovery as a means to performance. They reduce the impact and reduce stress on fatigued legs and joints and remove stress points from the bottoms of the feet.