Common complaints include: ruptured muscle fiber, inflammation and soreness, stress hormone elevation and disruption, a suppressed immune system, connective tissue wear and tear, fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, headache, diarrhea, dizziness, increased resting heart rate, loss of sleep and sex drive, and leaden legs. All of these are symptoms of an improper recovery from a heavy training cycle or race. Left untreated, these negative side effects can lead to an athlete’s undoing.
Musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems will only adapt and grow stronger if they receive the proper recovery between tough workouts and races. In essence, recovery is more important than the workout. Sage Rountree, a Team USA Triathlon World Championships team member and ultrarunning coach, agrees, “Recovery is where the gains in your training actually occur, and valuing your recovery is the key to both short-term and long-term success.”
Left to its own devices, the body does an amazing job of healing itself, yet there are practices you can implement on a daily basis to speed up and refine the process. Here’s a list of what will hopefully become some of your own effective recovery tricks.
Recovery Tips and Tricks
1. Active recovery
No matter how stressful an event or workout, don’t stop upon finishing. At the very least, walk or jog for several minutes. Allow your body to cool down by slowly returning to its resting state and clearing metabolic wastes. Very easy jogging or cross training can be used during the hours and days following a hard run to assist with blood flow to recovering muscles and allow for relief from the tedium of successive hard training efforts.
2. Nutrition and Hydration
Carbohydrates replenish glycogen stores for energy production, proteins repair and build muscle, and fluids hydrate and replenish electrolytes. “The most important consideration with post-workout nutrition is the timing of it all,” says 2014 Western States 100 champion and nutrition and exercise physiologist Stephanie Howe. “If you consume the post-workout fuel within 30 to 45 minutes after finishing, it immediately goes to the working muscles to facilitate recovery.”
Howe suggests that, ideally, we ingest roughly 0.8 to 1 gram of carbohydrate and 0.2 to 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight over the first hour post-workout. Additionally, caffeine can aid in recovery — roughly 3 to 8 milligrams/kilogram of body weight — according to this 2017 study. But Howe cautions, “Caffeine is tricky. This works for habitual caffeine users. Some people are caffeine sensitive and others don’t feel the effects as greatly.” If you’re prone to the jitters or an upset stomach after drinking caffeine then go easy on the java. When rapid recovery is important, like if you’re running or racing again in less than four hours, ingest high doses of carbohydrate; roughly 1.2 grams/kilogram of body weight.
“Don’t get too hung up on ratios and amounts, it’s more important to get something in as soon as possible,” says Howe. “I have my athletes aim for something that is mostly carbohydrate, with a little bit of protein. Milk is a great choice, a latte or a cappuccino is a fan favorite, but if salty chips and salsa sound good, eat that. Most sports products that are designed to be consumed as a recovery drink are good options as well. I like these because they are simple to use (just add water) and can be portable when you are driving from the trailhead.”
My personal favorite. Athletes who don’t get enough do not perform as well as those who do. Period. Proper sleep reinforces proper neuromuscular patterns, reaction times, glycogen storage, and better moods. If your night’s sleep is compromised or you’re carrying a heavy workload, naps can help you stay refreshed.
4. Manual Therapy
The full benefits of massage are not fully understood. It’s been linked to managing muscle inflammation, increasing blood circulation, as well as releasing muscle tension, cramping, and trigger points. Don’t have deep tissue work done three to four days before a hard workout or race and keep the touch light for the several days following an ultra event.
If you don’t have the time or money to seek a specialist, learn the tricks of self-massage. You can recreate the professional touch at home with a foam roller and lacrosse ball. Other methods of manual therapy such as chiropractic medicine, Rolfing, Active Release Technique, Graston, and myofacial release have also proven successful in alleviating pain, increasing range of motion, and reducing inflammation.
Cooling the muscles immediately after a hard run reduces inflammation and removes waste products. Recent debate has arisen due to research indicating that icing may compromise the training effect. Though there may be merit to the studies, remember that icing is not hazardous to your health. Icing would be appropriate after completing an ultra or during multi-stage events where you must be at the top of your game for several days. Cool baths (of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit) may be just as beneficial as icy ones. Icing acute injuries for 10 to 15 minutes will prevent inflammation from interfering with the healing process.
Added warmth, either by pads, saunas, or whirlpools, can treat stiff muscles or prep muscles for massage. However, heat should not be used when muscles are inflamed, as it will promote unwanted swelling.
7. Yoga and Stretching
These should be done gently when stiff and sore. Stick to basic yoga poses and use bolsters. Active isolated stretching, the act of contracting one muscle to allow the opposing muscle to relax and lengthen, increases range of motion and, like other active recovery activities, promotes circulation.
Antioxidants added to the diet can help negate exercise-produced cellular damaging free radicals. Multivitamins and mineral supplements can maintain good health in athletes with a history of anemia or those with a limited diet.
The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to deaden pain in order to continue training spells trouble. Prolonged usage or large single dosages inhibit recovery and can cause secondary physical problems. If a pain is present that inhibits your ability to train, then it’s time to discover the root of the problem. Try a recovery remedy like arnica montana or an Epsom salt bath instead.
Running-specific strengthening exercises can retrain lazy muscles to work more efficiently and quickly fatigued muscles to act with more power. Core exercises (planks, crunches, side-lying single leg lifts), squats, and lunges, for example, can also prevent injuries.
Is It An Injury?
How do we differentiate between good pain and bad pain? Soreness is a by-product of good training, but some aches can be a sign of impending injury. Signs of pain to be on the lookout for include some of those listed in Sage Rountree’s “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery:”
- Affects only one side of the body
- Is focused around a joint
- Gets worse when you run on it
- Reappears each day no matter the intensity
- Affects your running form
- Keeps you awake at night
If you experience one or more of these on a consistent basis — take some time off, seek professional help, or develop a cross-training plan that doesn’t irritate the injury while healing takes place.
Overtraining and Illness
The Tipping Point
Overtraining is the ruin of many athletes. Once pushed over the edge, it may take months to recover. The signs of overtraining can look like, but aren’t limited to, the list in the opening paragraph of this piece. Track your need for recovery over a season by observing downward spirals in your mood, sleep patterns, performance, and your overall enjoyment of running. It’s also important to note that other underlying medical conditions may be causing the issues. Training through is unwise. Less is definitely more.
The Neck Line
In general, when the signs and symptoms of an illness are “above the neck,” you can continue with light training, but anything “below the neck” calls for complete rest until the symptoms subside.
The duration, intensity, and structure of a recovery phase will vary according to the runner’s experience, training schedule, and individual response to tough workouts. Typical recovery scheduling might look like this:
- Each day, make it a priority to spend time working on several of the nine recovery practices listed above.
- Each week to 10 days, schedule one or two days of light “jogging,” non-impact cross training, or take the entire day(s) off. Insert these easier sessions or rest days in between tough workouts.
- Each month, schedule a seven-day block consisting of lower mileage and intensity than the surrounding weeks.
- Each year, schedule a month or two where you take a vacation from your normal training routine and, perhaps, temporarily take up a new sport.
- After a competitive event, take a break from demanding workouts.
- When returning from injury or illness, institute the reverse taper method discussed in this article on “The Difficult Art of Peaking.”
A proper recovery requires as much effort, discipline, and focus as training. Develop a strategy now. Investing a few minutes today will prevent long periods of injury downtime tomorrow.
- Kerksick, C.M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 33 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
- Logan, Linzay. The Four Best Strength Training Exercises For Runners. “Competitor.com,” N.p., 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.
- Rountree, Sage Hamilton. “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery: Rest, Relax, and Restore for Peak Performance,” Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 2011. Print.
- Stevenson, Roy. “Your Complete Guide to Recovering From a Marathon.” “Marathon and Beyond” 15.1 (2011): 56-68. Print.
Call for Comments
- Have you tried any of the recovery techniques listed? How have they worked for you?
- Have you felt the effects of improper recovery? Have you managed to bounce back and how?
[Editor’s Note: As one of iRunFar’s best training articles, we’ve worked with author Ian Torrence to update this article before resharing it.]