Recover Like: American Record Holder Shelby Houlihan
Exploding onto the scene, Shelby Houlihan is more than just a great runner. You can call her a national champion, American record holder, or whatever else you want, but Shelby has a hammer kick that the rest of the running world is envious of.
That’s what makes what Shelby has to say about training and recovery so much more interesting. They say if you are the best at what you do, you are “doing something right.” Well, now you can find out just exactly what “doing something right” really means. In our interview with American record holder Shelby Houlihan we find out what her magic recovery formula is made of. You might not guess it, but it is a lot more normal than you might think.
To start, can you take us through a normal week of your training schedule?
Well, usually it differs based on the day of the week. My workouts, as well as my teams, are decided by Coach Jerry who keeps us on a twelve-day schedule. In Jerry’s plan, we have two recovery days which are placed between hard workouts. Right now, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday are all mileage/recovery days with occasional core work in addition to our running. Tuesday and Thursday are the hard workouts days. Tuesdays are usually hills/speed workouts with a second run thrown in every once in a while. Thursdays are aerobic strength sessions such as mile repeats and last, Sundays are long runs.
To dive deeper, what does a complete day of your training and eating look like?
In season, my days are pretty routine. I try to wake up around 7:00 every morning and start my day with a healthy breakfast. My regular breakfast consists of a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and homemade granola. I like making my granola so there are no artificial sugars. I try to cut out as many added sugars in my diet as possible. After breakfast, I take time to sip my morning coffee, relax, and wake-up. About 9:00 to 9:30 I start warming up for my workout. Once I am ready, I go out and do whatever Jerry has prescribed for me and my team the Bowerman Babes. After going completing my workout, I eat a post-workout meal that is typically heavy on protein such as, a basic sandwich, or avocado toast with fried eggs. The rest of the day I usually lay low. If I have a second run, I go out about 5 or 6 hours after my first workout. In the evening, for dinner, I usually make something at home. I like to stick to whole foods and make everything from scratch. Because of this, I usually don’t take supplements throughout the day. The closest I take to a supplement is gummy vitamins. I take the gummies because they are more fun to eat. I also take calcium and vitamin D multivitamins, but that’s it. After dinner and some relaxing, I try to get to bed around 10:00.
Could you tell us what your favorite recovery tools are that you use throughout the day?
Definitely. My favorite recovery tools are the Roll Recovery R8 Roller, NormaTec boots, HyperIce Hypervolt, and then my generic foam roller. I try to take a little bit of time each day to spend using these things. The R8 Roller feels exactly like a massage and I love it! I also enjoy the NormaTec boots, because they flush out my legs. Most of the time, I use the NormaTec’s on days I’m feeling tired. The Hypervolt is lots of fun also. It looks like a gun and it gives great massages. Unfortunately, I don’t have one but since some of my teammates have their own, I always steal theirs.
Are there any other recovery techniques you use such as massages or ice baths?
Yes, I get a massage once or twice a week, and each time it hurts. Our team has its own massage therapist and I honestly feel he doesn’t know his strength. Every time I get on the table I just expect it to hurt. People don’t understand just how much massages hurt. On the other hand, people usually do know how much ice baths hurt, and I typically stay away from ice baths until the two days leading up to races.
Back to your training, how do you go about offseason recovery?
As I look back, every year of my professional career I’ve done things a little differently. I used to start my offseason with 1-2 weeks completely off. Now, my practice has been to take two weeks partially off with a 30-40 minute run every 3rd or 4th day. I began adding in some running to my time off simply because I had the urge to go for a run. I have found doing this makes it easier to transition back into training.
Why is time off so important to you?
More than anything else, my time off is a mental break from thinking about or doing anything related to running. Being a professional runner is mentally draining. Throughout the year I have to be diligent in every little thing to stay in peak shape. Honestly, the little things add up. I love to run, and I love working out, but as far as the little things go like cutting out sweets, doing recovery exercises, getting massages, and everything else, they make running seem like a 24/7 job. Simple things others might not think about such as even being away from home for a long time can wear on me. Being able to take some mental time off from that is extremely beneficial, and the nicest part is knowing I don’t have to be perfect. If I want to go to McDonald’s for something to eat then I go to McDonald’s.
Surprisingly, some of my teammates can barely take a break from training and then keep going all year, which is awesome, but I definitely need time to be a normal person. I prioritize the time I get to act like a regular human. In my opinion, taking time off from training is the best recipe for running well. I have found when your mind is in a good state then similarly your running is in a good state. Additionally, it helps me stay relaxed and have fun. When I am at home, I try to be as normal of a person as possible. I hang around and watch Netflix, and if I’m craving something I will just go eat it. When it is time to go back to training, I have found it helpful to gradually cut out the bad stuff instead of removing everything right away. This helps make the transition back to training much more enjoyable and doable.
Let’s move onto how you recover in-season when you are in the bulk of training?
As soon as training starts, that is when I flip my switch. From that point on, I work hard to do everything right. Throughout my career, I have found ways to stay relaxed while still doing all the right things. My teammates and I will go to movies or do trivia nights to have a night out like ordinarily people. This gives us a nice few hours break from running. If our workouts are hard on a particular day and we are not feeling great we might not go out, but if a group of us is up for doing something we like to go have fun.
How important would you say recovery is to your training?
Simply put, recovery makes all the difference in my training. If you keep pounding your body daily and do not allow it to recover, you are slowly digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole. Eventually, your body will break. As a professional athlete or any athlete for that matter, what you have to do is allow your body to recover from all the work that you are putting it through.
Often, I feel lazy sitting around watching Netflix when I’m not training but, I know that relaxing is the best thing for me. Sometimes, less is more. Constantly trying to do core or some other types of exercises all the time can end up being less beneficial than just recovering. At some point, you have to let your body chill out and recover. Along those lines, on my easy days, I will run as slow as my body wants to. It entirely depends on how I’m feeling. Listening to your body is sometimes the best thing that you can do.
Do you struggle to relax during the season, because you feel lazy?
To be honest, I think a lot of my teammates have that problem. I know people that always have to do something, at all times. They are go, go, go. Thankfully, I’ve never had a problem. One thing that helps me in this regard is never trying to compare myself to anyone else. I’m on my schedule, doing my own thing. Whatever works for me might not work for anyone else. I have figured out that if I need to take a few hours to recover by chilling out and watching Netflix, then that’s fine. I’ve stayed healthy for most of my career so I feel like what I’m doing is working great for me.
Has recovery always been this important to you or has your recovery changed throughout your career?
Genuinely, recovery might be the part of my training that has changed the most throughout my career. In high school, I did not do anything to help recovery. I did take ice baths quite frequently, other than that I did nothing. In college it was the same story, I would try to skip stretching and all the extra stuff. I just liked going for my run and then I was done after that.
As I become older, each year my recovery improved little by little. When I first joined the Bowerman Babes I would begin my runs by jumping out of the car and running. Some of my teammates would warm up for thirty minutes and I would always wonder what they were doing. Now, I’m the one everyone is waiting to warm up. Over the years I’ve got a lot better at sticking to my warm-up and recovery exercises.
Has your recovery nutrition changed as well?
Definitely. When I was in high school, on my way to school every day I would stop and get McDonald’s sausage egg and cheese McGriddle with a Dr. Pepper. That was my diet. To be brief, I ate poorly. Going into my freshman year of college I made it my dietary goal to eat fast food only once per day. That’s when I decided to start trying to eat healthier. The biggest problem I faced was not knowing how to cook or even eat healthy. For breakfast sometimes I would eat waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. Ironically, I thought was healthy because of the strawberries. I was wrong. It’s funny now, but when I began cleaning up my recovery nutrition I had no clue what to do.
When I joined the Bowerman Babes I took huge strides forward in my diet. My teammate Shalane Flanagan was a big part in helping, not only me, but everyone on the team. Shalane has two great cookbooks, Run Fast. Eat Slow. and Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. Both of those are packed with many of my favorite whole food recipes. I eat meals from Shalane’s books all the time, especially at altitude camp. At altitude camp, our team eats those recipes about four times a week.
Over my career, I have come a long way in my nutrition. Everything from learning what types of foods are healthy, to cooking healthy. Eating healthy has been huge for my recovery. Now that I eat real foods that my body needs, and not junk, my body recovers much more efficiently.
Since improving your nutrition, have you begun to count calories?
No, I don’t count calories. If I am hungry, I eat, whatever that means. Because of this, I try to keep my focus on eating pure foods that my body can use, rather than counting calories or measuring portion sizes for my meals. My problem is that sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing when I’m hungry and when I’m bored.
To wrap things up, what is the most important tip you could give our readers?
I would say the number one tip that I’ve learned is listening to your body. When you are tuned in and listening to your body, your results from training are going to be much better than they would be otherwise. For example, if I’m feeling tired on a training run, I know it’s ok to slow down. You don’t have to push it in every workout. Sometimes doing less is what your body needs. If your body feels like it needs a day off then take a day off. I am not big on being lazy, however, your body needs time to recover from hard workouts, that’s the right thing to do.
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Recover Like Shelby
How Shelby Recovers:
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Run Fast. Eat Slow.
Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.