Best Running Recovery Tips
For most runners, recovery is an often overlooked component of training. Unless you are an elite who has the time to devote to resting, stretching, making a nutrition and hydration plan, and napping, many athletes feel the additional “chores” of recovery are too time-consuming to complete. In reality, recovery is just as important as the stresses of training. Discussed here is everything a runner needs to know in order to get the most out of his or her recovery.
Recovery Begins Before Exercise Ends
We have all heard the adage that recovery begins the moment exercise ends, but researchers from Appalachian State University have published a new study that challenges that idea. After taking muscle biopsies of 24 male runners before and after running to exhaustion, it was found that the runners who completely depleted their muscular glycogen stores (i.e. carbohydrate stores) suffered increased inflammation. This inflammation (brought on by release of stress mediator cytokine) can lead to delayed recovery and feeling “off” after returning to running. Not surprisingly, this inflammation is most present after a long run or marathon.
To counter inflammation induced by glycogen depletion, runners should be mindful to consume carbohydrates during extended physical activity. The general rule of thumb is to consume 20 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of any vigorous activity lasting more than 75 minutes. Athletes who are running long runs week in and week out, should pay particular attention to carbohydrate fueling. It can be the difference between fast recovery and needing additional time to recover.
Relieve Muscle Soreness
One of the most prevalent side effects of a hard run or workout is the muscle soreness that you may feel for 1 – 3 days afterwards. Not only is muscle soreness painful, but it can be limiting in terms of physical activity and subsequent workouts. There are many tips to reducing or eliminating post-run soreness entirely.
Perhaps the best way to reduce muscle soreness is to properly hydrate throughout the day. Water is the natural lubricant of our muscles, and even 1% dehydration can affect performance and recovery. Without proper hydration, muscle adhesion can occur. Muscles are more likely to “stick” to one another and be limited in their movements, increasing the risk of soreness or injury. In addition, electrolytes play a crucial role in overcoming muscle soreness. Salts and minerals such as sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium regulate muscle function. Runners should supplement hydration (water and green tea are best) with sports drinks or fruit and vegetables (i.e. watermelon, banana, cantaloupe, cucumber, lettuce, and celery) to provide adequate water and electrolytes to recovering muscles. To monitor hydration, aim for light yellow urine throughout the day.
Besides taking in carbohydrates before and during long and hard efforts, post-run nutrition is an important aspect of run recovery. As soon as an athlete finishes exercise, the body goes into recovery mode by synthesizing protein to aid in muscle repair1. Within the first 30 minutes of this recovery period, muscles are most receptive to nutrition2. Find a snack that is approximately 200 calories and contains a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein to accelerate muscle repair and limit soreness. In addition to refueling during this recovery window, runners should regularly consume a balanced diet. Healthy fats found in avocado, olive oil, and fish speed up recovery thanks to nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin E, and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids; lean proteins such as chicken, steak, and lentils provide the building blocks of muscle repair; and wholesome carbohydrates in the form of quinoa, brown rice, and root vegetables provide fuel for glycogen storage.
For stubborn muscle soreness, likely caused by increased inflammation, a sports massage can relieve pain. During a massage, a therapist will perform techniques to reduce inflammation within in the body, and also align muscles while breaking up any adhesion that may be present. While sports massages are rarely relaxing or even enjoyable, they are important for restoring overworked muscles to optimal functionality.
Have you ever wondered if those brightly colored knee socks that marathon runners wear actually do any good? The answer is yes. One study has shown that wearing compression gear both during and after exercise can help relieve muscle stiffness and aid in recovery3. Compression socks and sleeves have “graduated compression”. They are tighter near the ankle than they are near the knee. This design helps fight gravity by forcing de-oxygenated blood (and metabolic waste products that induce soreness) back towards the heart for re-oxygenation. Compression also helps dilate blood vessels and arteries to improve blood flow, up to 40% during exercise and 30% during periods of inactivity, which leads to better circulation, performance, and mobility, as well as reduced soreness.
During training, runners require more sleep than the average person. In addition to the recommended 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night, runners should factor in additional rest to account for their mileage. For every ten miles of weekly running, 10 minutes of sleep should be added to the nightly total. For instance, someone who runs 60 miles per week should get an additional hour of sleep every night. Not able to fit that much sleep into your nightly routine? Consider taking one or two power naps throughout the day for improved recovery. Ultimately, muscle repair occurs most prominently during the REM sleep cycle, which only occurs for a limited amount of time during a normal night’s sleep, necessitating additional shut-eye.
Sleep deprivation can have terrible effects on athletic performance and increasing the number of hours of sleep per night can actually help achieve better results4.
When recovering from a big race, such as a marathon, runners should be mindful to reduce the amount of stress they place on their legs, especially if inflammation is present. Taking a week or two completely off is recommended in order to let the body repair, recharge, and reset itself. However, for runners who simply cannot take time off, cross training is a great alternative. Swimming, cycling, elliptical training, weight training, and yoga are all activities that runners can partake in to maintain fitness while reducing impact on recovering legs and feet.
Wrapping it up
Long distance running is a constant cycle of destruction and adaptation. When the human body is pushed to the edge of its ability, patience is needed to let it heal into a slightly stronger, faster state of homeostasis. That is what training is. It’s important to take planned breaks from training after key races, for both physical and mental health. While training is a fun and exciting process, it’s still hard work, and the cumulative effects are a grind on our bodies and minds.
Letting the body repair itself from months of hard training is key to avoiding injuries. Complete running recovery (from a key race) should be focused on unfocused running to renew your enthusiasm and rejuvenate your body to start chasing your next big race.
1. Levenhagen, Deanna. “Postexercise Nutrient Intake Timing in Humans Is Critical to Recovery of Leg Glucose and Protein Homeostasis.” American Journal of Physiology (2001). Print.
2. Howarth, K. R., N. A. Moreau, S. M. Phillips, and M. J. Gibala. “Coingestion of Protein with Carbohydrate during Recovery from Endurance Exercise Stimulates Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans.” Journal of Applied Physiology 106.4 (2009): 1394-402. Print.
3. Armstrong, Stuart A.; Till, Eloise S.; Maloney, Stephen R.; Harris, Gregory A. ” Compression Socks and Functional Recovery Following Marathon Running: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, February 2015,29(2):528-533
4. Halson SL. Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2014;44(Suppl 1):13-23. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0147-0.