The Body Doesn’t Know Miles. It Knows Stress.
A Coach’s Recovery Plan

I got divorced this year. It wasn’t a surprise to me, but it definitely changed my life. We left the marriage just as quickly as we entered it twenty-five years ago, celebrating our anniversary in January and divorcing by June. But this article isn’t as much about divorce as it is about running.

I’ve been a runner my whole life. I started training for ultras in 2015 after a few years of regular running and road races. I have always enjoyed running, yet my relationship with running—why I run—has changed over the years. As a kid, I ran was because I was fast. In high school, I discovered I was a pretty good runner who worked well on a team. As an adult, it was an opportunity to get outside, and as a mom, something I could do with my daughter. As I think about my why for running, I see it as an opportunity to do something I enjoy. I’m good at it, it makes me feel strong, and it’s my time to be outside.

As I reflect on the past ten years or so, I see that running was also an escape from a life that wasn’t happy or necessarily healthy. I used to joke that I was training and running ultras because it was the appropriate way to “run away from home.” Now I recognize that was an accurate statement. I was in a high-stress marriage and running got me out of the house for a few hours at least five times a week.

The phrase, “the body doesn’t know miles; it knows stress” has stuck with me since I read David Roche’s Trail Runner article on miles versus stress and the insightful book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van de Kolk. One of the greatest challenges I have learned as an athlete is the value of recovery. As a coach, I build recovery days into training plans and a minimum of two weeks of no running following a race. As a runner myself, I understand the need for recovery time, but sometimes chafe at rest days. In the times I neglected recovery after a race, my performance (or lack thereof) at the next race proved just how necessary it was.

I had an ah-ha moment in July when my running was neither fun nor going as well as I had anticipated. While summer in the Midwest is not the most enjoyable time to run—even 5 a.m. training runs are extremely humid—this was different. I still liked the idea of running and knew its value for me physically, emotionally, and mentally. But the actual running was hard. My breathing was rugged, my gait seemed off, and as noted, I was not having fun. As I coached myself through a handful of challenging runs, I realized my body was telling me not to go so hard. Here was my ah-ha: I needed (and still need) time to recover from life, not a race. My body knew about the stress of the first six months of the year. This recognition was humbling. I realized I needed to give myself and my body the space to recover so that I can continue to have adventures going forward.

There are numerous books and articles with advice on how to recover from life changes such as divorce, addiction, and sports injuries. As a coach, I am familiar with much of this material, so I’ve created a plan for the next six months of the year. The objective is to help my body recover from the stress of a recent life change. This includes the time necessary to learn who I am now, what I want to do going forward, and how I can be better—not bitter—about the experience. I share this plan both to keep myself accountable and to offer it to others who may need a helping hand.

  1. First and foremost, get rest. The number one recovery tool for athletes (and everyone else) is sleep. I am prioritizing sleep for the next six months. No more trying to stay up till 10 p.m. because “I am an adult.” Nope. If I’m tired at 9 p.m., then I’m going to bed. If I’m dozing off on a quiet afternoon, then I’m taking a nap. Sleep allows our bodies to perform many functions that are vital to maintaining health, including producing white blood cells and repairing muscle tissue. Getting adequate rest helps athletes prevent injury and burnout.
  2. Eat well. As an athlete, I view food as my body’s fuel. Proper nutrition equips my body for training and performance. Lots of miles means lots of fuel, in order to perform well. While I am not training for any ultras in the next six months, my body is stressed and needs fuel to recover. I tend to eat well most of the time, and in times of stress this is even more important. For breakfast each day I eat grass-fed beef, cheese, and three eggs. I also like adding butter to my coffee. It adds a nice flavor to my morning routine. I am eating seasonally (yay for fresh fruit and produce!) and focusing on foods that will help my body and brain be healthy. Eating protein not only builds muscle mass and bones, it also helps repair stressed or damaged tissue. I am a fan of good fats (omega-3 fatty acids) such as olive oil and butter, as they help my brain function more efficiently.
  3. Motion is lotion. I first heard this mantra at my local running store, managed by a friend and fellow running coach. Movement is good for our bodies, brains, emotions, and mental state; it keeps all systems functioning. Each year, I set a monthly mileage goal for running when I am not training for a race. I will continue to hit that goal even though I’m modifying some of my running routine. I also find walking at lunchtime improves my day and helps me reset my attitude for a better afternoon.
  4. Connect with others. We know the value of being social and having friendships. In times of stress, it can be easy to stay home or disconnect from others. Taking up a new activity is a great way to make new connections. I am learning to sail snipe sailboats and finding community along with a new sport. I have a good group of girlfriends who enjoy getting together to camp, road trip, or talk about books. I am also lucky to have close family who are willing to help with house projects or just hang out for a visit. Happy endorphins ease stress. These can come from touch, laughter, awe, and joy.
  5. Be curious. A colleague and friend offered me sound advice when I told him I was getting divorced. He suggested that I be curious as to what life has to offer me next. I appreciate this approach to a life change. It implies hope, faith in the future, and the awareness that life has a way of working things out in ways I may not expect. I would describe myself as curious in that I like to know the “what” and the “why” of something. But I’m getting better at trusting in the unknown, which may be a better definition of curiosity.

Perhaps this article isn’t on divorce or on running. I think it’s about one’s mindset in the face of a life change. The body does know stress. It’s my responsibility to listen to what it’s telling me, take the time to recover, and best prepare for whatever lies ahead on the trail.

For further reading, see Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Study, by Williams Florence.

Main image from Marcia Dority. Post image from istock/mikdam (recover on the road), monkeybusinessimages (people laughing). 

Marcia Dority Baker

Marcia Dority Baker is a leadership coach. She is curious by nature and enjoys helping people achieve their goals. As a coach, her first question is, “how can I help you be successful?” This process invites individuals to identify what they want to accomplish and then build an action plan to successfully reach their goal.

Marcia has over seventeen years of experience in higher education in academic technologies and as an academic law librarian. Marcia holds a Master of Arts in Library & Information Science from the University of Missouri and a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a certified leadership coach from the Maxwell Leadership Team.

Marcia lives in the Midwest where you will find her running on the trails or gravel roads. She is a UESCA certified Ultrarunning coach and the owner/founder of Dority Baker Coaching, LLC. Her coaching business focuses on helping women achieve their running goals. Marcia is also a sponsored athlete with UltrAspire, an outdoor lifestyle business that creates running accessories.

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