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Leg strength and endurance

Reaching John O'Groats at the end of my hike from
Lands End in 2010.

This morning's 11.5km run was a bit of a grind.  Having had two relatively easy days in a row, I was hoping to feel a bit fresher, but my legs remain heavy with fatigue from Monday's long road run.  The slow recovery tells me I still have some way to go to full running fitness.  I'm simplifying, but my experience is that there are really three phases to regaining fitness after an extended period off running.

Camping while hiking the length of the Australian Alps
Walking Track in 2011.

The first phase, which takes me about three weeks these days (one or two weeks when I was younger), is getting to the point where I feel like a runner again.  It requires my joints and ligaments to loosen up, and my muscles to strengthen, sufficient to regain my running posture and balance.  At the end of the phase I can run smoothly again, but have poor stamina and slow recovery.

The second phase, which now takes me a couple of months, depending on how long I had off, sees the gradual return of cardiovascular capability and muscle strength sufficient to run reasonable times and perhaps be competitive, but my leg recovery rate is poor.  I can run hard one day, or up the first hill, but it's hard to back up for the second.  It is a frustrating time because I know the fitness has in large part returned, but I am still missing something.

Crossing a Swiss mountain pass while hiking the Via
Alpina in 2012.

The third phase is full fitness.  I will know when I get there because I'll comfortably back up from a tempo run with Terrigal Trotters on a Saturday morning with a long run on the Sunday.  I will be able to run up an early hill feeling like there's another gear if I need it, and then be almost fully recovered by the next.  There will be days when I feel like I can run forever.  Amongst my club-mates, there are some in this phase.  They run confidently, knowing they are competitive and can deal with whatever terrain and challenges come their way.

Taking a break while hiking the length of the Hume & Hovell
Track in 2013.

The main factor for me in transitioning from the second to third phases, is leg strength and endurance - the ability of my legs to absorb considerable pounding over a long period.  For me, it is achieved through long miles, usually on the road, and that's why I'm persevering with long road runs, even though they are knocking me around.  There have been occasions, on return from long hiking trips, when I've started my comeback with the leg strength/endurance already there and have achieved good competitive fitness much earlier.  That's not the case this time around, and I think it will be another few months and more long runs before I get there, all going well.