4 Ways to Maximize Your Running Recovery

Today's workout:  8 miles at recovery pace (today that was avg. pace of 9:19), Body Pump class later on at the gym

Between the speedwork on Wednesday and yesterday’s hilly, hot and humid long run, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my legs were feeling decidedly less than peppy today.   We’ve all had it happen: You roll out of bed on Sunday morning and instead of feeling ready to go, your legs feel like someone has attacked them with hammers while you slept. The 8-mile run you have planned does not sound the least bit appealing. You know the long-run you had the day before took a lot out of you, but you thought you’d be fine by the morning. What happened? Recovery, or in this case the lack thereof, is the issue.

Throughout our training as distance runners, our bodies are in a constant state of remodeling. We break down our muscles with grueling workouts and place stress on our skeletal system every time we lace up our shoes and head out the door. But the key to getting stronger over time can be summed up in one word: RECOVERY.   Recovery is where the magic happens. It’s where the body adapts and sends the signal to cells to rebuild those muscles and bones into stronger, better versions of themselves. Without proper recovery, you don’t improve – you don’t get faster.

So if we want to be better runners, we need to ask how can we maximize our recovery and give our bodies the best chance they have to repair and rebuild those muscles and bones.   It’s a great idea to practice these recovery tips after every run – but it becomes increasingly important after especially hard workouts, or especially long runs. That’s the time when your body needs the most TLC and you’ll get the greatest recovery “bang for your buck”.

The 4 Keys to Recovery

  1. Refuel:   This is a multi-step process. Hopefully you’ve been properly hydrated and fueled during the run through a mixture of water and possibly a carbohydrate replacement (i.e. Gatorade or gels).   Once you finish the run, it’s time to get serious about refueling.15-30 minutes post-run: Aim to take in some food or drink with both carbohydrates and protein (a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is ideal). If your stomach can’t handle food directly after your run, try chocolate milk or a protein/recovery drink. I’m a big chocolate milk fan, but also like Picky Bars on the days my stomach seems to be more accepting of solid foods. The key is to get this down right away after your long run or workout. Refueling within that 30-minute window allows your body to replenish glycogen stores at a 50% faster rate.  Which translates into muscles that are less sore and stiff the next day, allowing you to be ready to train again.   Make sure to pack your post-run fuel in a bag or cooler so that you’ll have it ready and waiting for you once you finish your run.2-4 hours post-run: Try to eat a healthy meal to help fully replenish your fuel stores and prime your body for additional recovery.   A good mix of carbs and protein with some healthy fat is ideal. Your body will continue to use those nutrients throughout the rest of the day to rebuild your tired muscles.
  2. Hydrate: Raise your hand if you are tired of hearing “Drink more water!”. Yes, me too. But in the hours after your run it’s one of the best things you can do for your body. Staying hydrated will help keep your muscles bathed in fluid – reducing friction (and therefore soreness).   Experts suggest drinking 20-24oz. of fluid for every pound lost during exercise. If you don't feel like weighing yourself before and after your run, an easier rule of thumb is to continue to hydrate until your urine is a pale lemonade color.
  3. Foam Roll/Massage: The foam roller might be my favorite tool in the recovery arsenal. Formally titled “self-myofascial release”, rolling out your muscles with the foam roller helps break up trigger points and helps coax the knotted, bunched up muscle fibers back into a smoother orientation. Foam rolling all muscle groups helps restore range of motion and keeps you the muscles moving smoothly. It’s definitely a “hurts so good” feeling at times (especially when you hit that IT band!) but it does wonders for returning some pep to your muscles and keeping you injury free. I aim for 10 minutes directly post-run and 10 minutes or so at night before sleep.   Don’t have a foam roller? Time to invest. Good news - they're fairly cheap! Here’s the one I have, but there are a ton of variations (see here, here and here).
  4. Sleep - As athletes, not getting enough sleep has a much bigger impact than simply making us cranky. It decreases our energy, slows our reflexes, and messes with our hormones (specifically the growth hormone responsible for repairing our tired bodies).   It’s crucial that we give our body the amount sleep it needs.   For athletic adults, that’s a recommended 8-10 hours a night. While it may be a challenge for most of us to get to bed early enough to hit that amount (um, yes), it’s a goal worth pursuing. If your schedule allows, you can also take a cue from professional runners and try to nap during the day to give yourself an extra recovery boost.

Sometimes, even though you’ve been a good little runner and done all the steps above, a workout will leave your legs feeling like toast for a few days.   If I’ve followed the steps above and I’m still sore for a day or two after, I’ll reach for my extra special super recovery tips below:

Bonus Recovery Tips – a.k.a. Time to Bring Out the Big Guns

  • Compression socks (or compression shorts/tights) – If my legs are feeling especially beat up post-run I’ll throw these babies on and wear them for an hour or two. The verdict is still out on whether or not these provide a benefit during the run, but research supports that they help speed recovery afterwards.
  • Epsom salt bath – A good friend of mine (and super-fast Olympic trials qualifier) gave me this tip. Buy some Epsom salt (aka magnesium sulfate) from the drugstore and add several cups to a hot bath. Get in and soak for about 15 minutes or so. Your body absorbs the magnesium and sulfates through the skin, and research supports that an increase in magnesium levels helps improve circulation, ease muscle pain and flush out toxins from cells.
  • Hydrotherapy – Have access to a pool? Take the kids or go on your own and get in the water. Active recovery (gentle swimming/walking) in water has been shown to be effective in both reducing muscle soreness and helping to speed the return of the muscles to full strength.   I’m always surprised at how much this method really seems to work.

Trying to improve your running and stay injury free means working all the angles – and proper recovery is a big one. It’s an easier one to neglect since let’s face it – after running for more an hour on any given morning we may not always want to take extra time out of the day to do more running-related stuff. But if you can find a few minutes to foam roll, refuel and hydrate post-run, it’ll make a big difference.   As for me, I’ll be over here drinking my post-run smoothie, foam rolling, hanging out with my trusty water bottle and trying to convince my little daughters to go to bed early so I get just a few more zzzz’s.   Fingers crossed for peppy legs in the morning.

What are your favorite ways to recover post-run?