During my latest recovery week I find myself pondering (again) the conundrum of how much I should ease off for the week. It comes having just finished reading the (excellent) book Out of thin air by Michael Crawley. In it Michael, an anthropologist, studies the habits and training regimes of Ethiopia’s top runners. You can read the highlights in 5 minutes here, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend reading the whole book.

Is zur a good thing or bad thing?

One particular observation I find particularly relevant for the world of ultra running is Ethiopian runners aversion to what they call “laps” (or “zur” in their native language of Amharic). This word refers not the laps of a running track but any unnecessary activity away from training that inhibits your body’s ability to rest.

On the contrary my approach for most of the year was to squeeze in as much low impact, low effort exercise as I could. While I have adjusted that plan in the past 6 months that has been because of injury, largely. I still think there is benefit in this. With the benefit of a sit/stand desk at home I also stand up as much as possible, especially during meetings, which I’m sure would be frowned upon by the runners featured in the book.

I would still encourage any athletes training for an ultramarathon to spend as much time on their feet as they can, in general, so what’s my rationale?

Well first of all, the Ethiopian runners in question are, let’s not forget, elite runners who clock extensive miles during the course of a typical week and will often train twice a day. Their bodies really do need a break. For almost everyone else we don’t have the time or inclination to push our bodies through that level of rigour.

Second of all, depending on the nature of your job, you may not spend hours on your feet each day so it’s important to get your feet and biomechanics more accustomed to spending time vertical rather than sitting / horizontal.

Based on how everything has gone so far, I’m approaching my race with a focus on “complete” rather than “compete”. Perhaps my perspective may differ if I were a more competitive runner but for now I think it’s helpful to squeeze as much “zur” in as possible!

How far should I reduce my load during a recovery week?

As I’ve said before, I’m not usually that disciplined in de-loading during a recovery week. I totally buy into the concept that your body needs sufficient time to recover in order to prepare for further adaptation. But, when you have a compulsion (or mild addiction) to training you don’t want to have days off.

Doing some quick research (Runner’s world again!) suggests that some people may cut their running distance by as much as a half. The truth is, how much recovery time our bodies need will be very personal to each of us. This week I’ve experimented with taking a full 72 hours off, with just yoga and some walking.

Sadly I can’t say it helped much as my first run of the week was a 1-mile test and despite a 20+ minute warm-up I appear to have pulled my hamstring which still hurts 4 days later! But I’m sure that my body was thanking me up until that point.

However you decide to introduce recovery weeks / days, just make sure that they become a feature whatever your age and level of fitness. Your body (and mind) will thank you for the short break and should start to reward you with greater improvements in fitness. The alternative being a stagnation of performance (at best) and deterioration or injury (at worst).