“Head, heart, hustle” – the words of Thomas Moyer were in my head, egging me on.
10 miles done, 9.22 to go, it was New Year’s Eve, the last day of a 31-day experiment in adaptation. I was exhausted but I knew I was going to make it. 99% chance of completion.
I heard about the 496 challenge while watching the Rich Roll podcast with Sean Conway – you run 1 km for each day of the month, so 1 km on the 1st, 2 km on the 2nd, and so on up to 31 km on the 31st, all adding up to 496 km (about 308 miles). I like quirky challenges like this and really enjoyed Sean’s approach to it- have fun, make it novel, love running again. I decided on a whim to do it. It was November 30th which gave me a full December attempt. I gave myself a 30% chance of completion and promised to bail if any injuries occurred.
For 31 days I ran. I ran on the treadmill, on the beach, in the mountains, and on the streets. I became a runner again. My body changed dramatically. I tested adaptation and recovery techniques. I learned a lot. Here are some of the learnings.
- Running on tired legs forces you to be more efficient, improving form.
- The logistics of running every day is almost as hard as the running.
- Moments of bliss were mixed in with long bouts of struggle.
- My performance to recovery ratio was about 2:1.
- You can stay in zone 2 for a LONG time.
My recovery process was the following:
- Cold immersion followed by hot – I reversed my normal process because the cold exposure was causing me to remain hot for too long after each run. When exposed to heat, your body starts the cool down process, which worked better for me when I had meetings after running.
- Rollers and Theragun – The roller was a magical tool. My calves would be like solid pegs the next morning if I didn’t roll them out. When I rolled them out for 15 minutes at night, I could immediately feel relief and walk normally. The Theragun was almost too much but worked well on hamstrings, quads, and glutes.
- Nutrition/hydration – Instead of eating before running, I ate while running like I would for marathon/ultra training, staying just ahead of bonking. I carried food and water in my pack, which eventually felt like part of my body. I aimed for protein within an hour after the daily run. Dinners were heavy on carbohydrates and re-hydration.
- Novelty – I mixed in trail running, mountain running, and new routes to ease the boredom. Delivering the plunger was a great example of making the running fun, which was the whole point. New routes helped with the mental recovery from long runs.
- Lots of sleep – I slept really well during the month and did my best to dial it in. I took naps when needed and tried to be consistent in wakeup time.
I learned that I needed an hour of recovery for every two hours of performance. If I didn’t get enough, then I would start the next day with more soreness and less strength. It was very clear how effective the recovery was with each morning’s run. When I had a deficit of recovery, I experienced fatigue and cognitive challenges. At a couple points later in the month, I was having a hard time making decisions and doing complex work, signs of chronic stress.
Adding novelty was the key to make it fun. We were in the high desert for eight days, which enabled a ton of exploration on desert trails. I talked some extended family on going with me on a “mountain hike” up Mt. Wrightson in Arizona that turned into a pretty harrowing experience. It started with cold rain, became snow at the summit, and then a cold descent without all the right gear. We all survived and were able to eat a LOT of pizza after that trip. Here are some of us freezing at the summit, after which, we left as quickly as possible!
At one point, Kerri’s mom called me to see if I could drive over and bring a plunger from our house to their house two miles away. I still needed to finish my mileage that day, so I offered to run it over. Turns out people look at you funny when they see you running with a plunger in your hand!
I finished the challenge partially in Santa Barbara and partially in LA. The days when we drove were the hardest. I would run, get in the car, drive for several hours, and then be totally stiff for the next run. This was just one of the logistical challenges to recovery that I had to overcome. On the way up to Santa Barbara, we hit this beautiful rainbow – what an experience!
My favorite part of the experience was the time I spent with Koda, dog co-pilot. After hours of running together, we started moving together really well. We felt like a pack and he understood my grunts and commands really well. He dropped five pounds in the month and is thriving from the running. We took the first eight days of January off to recover and went on our first run – we were flying! We knocked out four miles with strength and speed. It was amazing. My legs feel great. My structure and form is better than ever.
Our ability to improve performance in physical, cognitive or emotional systems is through adaptation. If we increase the stress we put on these systems and then recover, we adapt to higher levels of performance (Selye et al., 1976). However, it’s crucial to strike the right balance. Excessive stress, insufficient recovery, or chronic stress can lead to long-term consequences. Chronic stress has been linked to a range of health issues, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired memory and cognition, and weakened immune function (McEwen et al., 1998). So, while pushing our boundaries is essential for growth, let’s remember to prioritize the recovery phase to reap the full benefits.
Embrace the power of adaptation to achieve new capacity and capabilities. If you are working on something cognitively draining for several hours, it is important to balance that with an appropriate amount of cognitive recovery. Instead of just thinking about performing, take your recovery seriously and notice how it affects how you feel and how you perform. Here are some recovery protocols to consider.
Go for a walk, stare at a tree – do something without a lot of cognitive stimulation to recover well!