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Recovery: Just Do Something!

After Fleet Feet’s 24-Hour Fight Against Hunger Event –– thanks to everyone who participated and donated to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York –– I was thinking a lot about recovery. I did a lot of running and flouted the ten percent rule (upping mileage by no more than ten percent per week) in a big way. I suspect quite a few participants shared this experience and were sore and tired as a result.

Recovering from running is an important aspect of training. It is during one’s rest and recovery period that the stress of training is incorporated into new fitness improvements. Without recovery, the body will never have the opportunity to adapt to the latest training stimulus; runners get ground down physically by doing training session after training session without relief. This will inevitably result in the dreaded (although for some runners unrecognized) condition of “overtraining syndrome.” The ranks of the elite running community are littered with the shortened careers of those who didn’t know when to pull back. Alberto Salazar is the most famous example of OTS (http://www.outsideonline.com/1986361/running-empty). So, while I know it’s maybe hard to believe, there are some times when taking it easy is a good idea.

As someone looking to figure out recovery, I first turned to running magazines and running advice websites. What I found out is that the recovery routines of elite athletes are out of control. They move from a warm-down run, to a snack, on to static stretching, then an ice bath, a meal, a massage, and a nap. I feel tired just reading about it –– only a professional runner would have the time for such an elaborate ritual.

Don’t despair, however! Much of developing a recovery routine is discovering what works for you. There are several principles you will need to follow and activities that you may want to do, but the important thing to remember is that you need to do something. If you don’t have time for your ideal recovery routine, this does not mean that you should simply abandon your recovery efforts. You might not be able to take a two-hour nap after your hard session, but you should be able to have a snack and do some hydrating. I’ll say it again:

DO SOMETHING!

Here are the main elements of a successful recovery routine. Ideally, you should try to do all of these. In reality, accomplish some of these and you will be going a long way to both incorporating the training stimulus and adequately preparing your body for your next run.

Hydrate

Immediately after your run, have some water or an electrolyte replenishment beverage, such as NUUN, to start rehydrating. To work effectively, muscles need to be bathed in fluid. Running removes fluid from your body and reduces the amount available to muscles. Be sure to drink throughout your recovery process to rehydrate.

Refuel

Be sure to eat a high-carbohydrate snack to replenish your glycogen stores. You should combine this with some protein to aid muscle repair. This initial 4:1 ratio carb to protein snack should be consumed within 15 minutes of ending your workout. This is one reason why everyone has become so consumed with drinking chocolate milk. Its carbohydrate-protein ratio is ideal for recovery and it also aids with hydration. However, your ideal post-workout snack may differ. My recent recovery snack is a couple of tablespoons of cookie dough peanut butter by Power House Athletics spread on half a bagel. The protein-enhanced nut butter aids in muscle repair while the carbohydrates from the bagel help to replenish my glycogen stores. And it tastes good!

There are, of course, all sorts of different options that suit your body’s immediate recovery needs. Some runners, for instance, wouldn’t hear of doing anything without first consuming a smoothie. Others are fine with eating a Cliff Bar. It’s really up to you, but the main thing is to have this snack within 15 minutes of your run, when the body is primed to absorb maximum amounts of glycogen.

Stretch

While you are still warm from your workout, do some easy static stretching to cultivate flexibility and aid in injury prevention. The important muscles to work on are your hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, calves, and glutes. Stretching while still warm from your run will help you to make sure that your muscles are pliable and ready for your next workout. Stretching combined with hydrating will also allow you to recover from muscle adhesions.

Keep Warm

During the hour or so after your hard workout, your body is functioning at its optimum metabolic healing rate, so it is important to keep your muscles warm. Successful recovery depends on flushing out toxins and lactic acid –– the byproducts of hard running –– by increasing blood flow. This is why it is important to put on some warm clothing after your run. This is one of the reasons why the quarter zip was invented.

Another way to keep the blood flowing is to pull on some compression socks. Compression socks have become a popular and useful recovery tool that get more blood to the micro tears in your muscles for faster recovery. Wear them for several hours after the end of your run.

Massage

Another way to stimulate blood flow and address muscle adhesions, prevent the buildup of scar tissue, and generally reduce muscle tightness is to do some deep tissue massage within several hours of completing your run. If you don’t have access to the services of a professional masseuse, there are several tools that can replicate a deep massage. The R8 by Roll Recovery is an aggressive way to break up adhesions and stimulate blood flow. You can also use your own body weight to get deep in the muscle tissue by using one of TriggerPoint’s foam rollers. Finally, the convenient, easily transportable Addaday Type C Massage Roller helps you recover from your run anywhere.

       
Roll Recovery's R8                     Addaday Type C Massage Roller

Ice Baths

The idea behind the ice bath is that it quickly reduces inflammation by combating the small tears in muscle fibers that cause soreness. Ice baths also reduce tissue breakdown by helping to flush waste products. It used to be common wisdom that plunging your legs into a bathtub filled with ice was a necessary part of recovery for the serious athlete. Therefore, I guess I’ll never be a serious athlete –– I’m running for fun and taking an ice bath is not my idea of fun.

Luckily for cold-o-phobes like me, there is a developing theory that ice baths might actually reduce your body’s adaption to the training stimulus by preventing your body from responding to muscle damage. Soreness might, in fact, be a good thing and when your body naturally addresses muscle soreness, it is part of the process of strengthening muscles. (http://strengthrunning.com/2010/08/running-recovery/)

The cold hard truth: save the ice for your acute injuries. Sprain your ankle? Put some ice on it. Just back from a long, hard run? Maybe not. 

Sleep

Finally, and most importantly, the key to recovery is sleep. Your body repairs itself while you are sleeping, so it is important not to skimp on your nightly hours. People that are training hard typically need at least seven hours of sleep a night. If you start feeling irritable and unmotivated after your training sessions, you probably need more shut-eye, as this can be a sign of overtraining.

Conclusion

Recovery is a highly personal endeavor that evolves according to your needs. It might be, for instance, that you believe that you have your carbohydrate and protein snack within half an hour of finishing a run or you’ll feel cranky and depleted. With experience, though, you might find that eating solids so soon after running isn’t going to work for you. (This is why someone with a good blender and over-ripe bananas invented smoothies.) Just remember to do something to keep you at your running best!

What are your keys to recovery? Are there recovery rituals that make a big difference for you? Please tell us about how you recover in the comments –– thanks!

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