Best Recovery Methods For Runners
Recovery is the key to success. Many athletes can master training as such, especially over years and years, however, beneficial adaptions will not occur to their most optimal standard unless recovery is also understood and ‘mastered’ in a sense (to use that term loosely). It’s pretty simple when we get down to the nuts and bolts of it – sleep and nutrition are king, and outweigh things like foam rolling and active recovery in the long term.
Also, I don’t think I’ve said this before, but when I write these articles I am attempting to do so in a way that makes these topics comprehensible to anyone who decides to give them a read (thank you for being here!). I don’t intend on getting too deep into scientific concepts and the applicable research because I think it would miss the point for my audience reading this and the simplicities of practical application.
It is hard to say what will work best for each individual – to understand this takes testing the practical application of recovery methodologies on yourself. However, there are a few well-known ‘best’ recovery methods for runners derived from both research and, as I mentioned, practical application and positive response.
I wrote a post in mid-2021 on ‘how to have more energy for running’ (click here to read). I bring this up because this article has a lot of cross-over with this current one. Why?
The key is – you get stronger when you recover, not whilst you’re ‘doing’ the said activity. That’s when we apply stress and strain to the body. When we recover well, we adapt well. I really wish someone had explained this to me as a very young athlete with this type of simple wording. The typical athlete is very driven, and quite often it is not a matter of telling them to do more, but more so to train smarter not harder, and recover even better.
Another important thing to note, is “stress is stress”. An athlete will hinder their recovery in an environment inducing stress overload. For example, if work is stressful, and the university is stressful, then there isn’t much room for training to be a large stressor too. This is where the balancing act begins.
How Can I Recover Faster From Running?
This is the golden question, and funnily enough the top ‘googled’ question around this topic. Everyone wants to recover faster so they can get back to it faster, right?
The goal is to recover well enough to stress the body again (consistency), with the occurrence of adaptions targeted to optimal performance in the activity, and likely, an event/s. If we don’t recover we risk overtraining, which can lead to unfavorable adaptations, or a limit on adaption, illness, injury, etc. You want just enough stress to elicit a favorable response, consistently.
The good news is that there are a few tools that can optimize recovery and therefore elicit optimal performance benefits. However sometimes there’s no ‘magic’, it’s simply a matter of time to allow the body to adapt. This reigns true particularly if training has multiple stressors such as environmental stressors on top of load (heat, altitude, humidity – to name a few). I’ll explore that a bit more below.
Recovery Nutrition For Runners
We need to think of food as energy availability. The food you eat fuels the activity you do and the life you want to live. I like to remember that energy intake has to equal (and better for athletes) energy output. This will ensure not only optimal performance but adequate general health.
We don’t need to track food unless we have specific goals or are guided by a medical professional as that can pose its own issues. However, we need to always eat enough. Food is fuel and the building blocks of repair from our training load. It’s likely you’ve heard of RED-S by now – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, which will eventuate in adverse health and performance in athletes. RED-S occurs when energy expenditure is not being met adequately with energy intake over a sustained period of time. The adverse effects of underfuelling can impact both male and female athletes, however data trends highlight that, ‘1 in 3 female athletes has 2 or more symptoms of underfuelling’. From a data collection standpoint, it seems that women are more ‘prone’ to this issue, however, it can be easier to tell if a female is under-fuelling.
Well-timed and adequate food intake is a crucial component of recovery. Ideally, endurance athletes will intake a 3:1 ratio of CHO (carbohydrates) to protein within 30 minutes of exercise particularly over an hour in length. If your exercise duration is > 60 minutes, bring fuel with you. This could be gels, liquid nutrition, waffles, or a combo of a few. I personally like Tailwind, Spring Energy and Maurten. I avoid preservatives (sorbates, benzoates, MSG, nitrates, flavour enhancers) at all costs, and these nutrition brands are perfect in that sense. Look out for 200 and 600 numbers on ingredient labels (not including food acids etc.) if you’re trying to be wary of these artificial additives.
Long story short – find food that you enjoy eating, always eat enough, and find what works to fuel your training + life! Nutrition should be a fun part of recovery.
Sleep Recovery For Runners
Sleep is the only time the body fully recovers, so for the runner, (and anyone) sleep is going to be a key component of recovery. I could write a whole piece on this, and I will at some point, but here are the nuts and bolts of it…
If you can’t get enough sleep in a night, try for a 20-minute power nap around lunchtime or mid-afternoon. This can elicit beneficial responses. Steve Magness, author and performance coach, recently posted about a NASA study. NASA found that just one, “twenty-five-minute nap improved judgment by 35 percent and vigilance by 16 percent.”
The data is clear, short naps do work. Longer naps, not so much as that’s when our nighttime sleep can be negatively impacted.
My personal favorite which I was introduced to by my good friend Bastein is to drink a coffee right before the 20-minute nap, and by the time you wake, the coffee will work. It’s a double whammy in that sense!
A properly planned training program
A well-structured training program is a plan, and a plan needs to be flexible. This allows for realistic changes due to life, needing extra recovery time, events, etc. Athletes should have a range of interests that aren’t just work and training, to maintain a healthy mental and physical state. Flexibility allows for this. It’s important to remember that mental fatigue can be a source of physical fatigue (stress is stress), so we must account for this.
Further, the training load needs to be balanced appropriately with recovery time, to ensure favorable training adaptions are made. This means the next time we do ‘said workout’ or activity, we are able to handle it better, push ourselves a little further, and likely elicit another positive training response.
Environmental Stressors Impacting Recovery for the Distance Runner
I decided to include a section on environmental stressors as external to the training load itself, environmental factors can impact our recovery and therefore need to be considered.
If an athlete lives in an environment of high altitude or intense heat, per se, this needs to be considered in the training program and predicting ‘total-training stress’ (TTS). Training Peaks track this (sans environmental stress) which can be useful to gain a rough understanding when tracked over a few training cycles of general fatigue. I won’t go into this too much, but you can check it out here.
I live at a moderate altitude, around 2350m – so it’s fitting for me to discuss altitude as environmental stress on physiological systems. You’ll hear of athletes adopting varied training protocols such as live-high train-low (LHTL) or live-high-train-high (LHTH) in an attempt to gain favorable adaptions for their specific events. ( Generally agreed as, High (8,000 – 12,000 feet [2,438 – 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 – 18,000 feet [3,658 – 5,487 meters]).
However, adaptions will vary depending on the type of exposure the athlete has. For example, are they chronically adapted (they have lived for an extended period of time at said altitude)? Do they expose themselves to altitude in acute episodes? A series of encounters consistently over time?
Even then, the athlete’s response will likely be highly varied from individual to individual. There’s decreased oxygen availability and therefore higher cardiac output. Adaptions to better oxygenate tissue in the body include a higher hemoglobin (Hb) count. Increased Hb levels allow the body to better oxygenate working muscles. To explore this a little further, EPO (a hormone) production from the kidney in response to hypoxia will spike (peak) within 48hrs of exposure to elicit bone marrow-produced red blood cells (red bone marrow), to increase oxygen carrying capacity of blood in the body to the tissue. Red blood cells use Hb to transport oxygen around the body. Having a higher red blood cell count will boost Hb count. You’ll perform at a higher level the more efficiently your body can oxygenate tissue in response to the increased demands. Think of it like a repeating cycle in the body’s fight for better blood oxygen levels at altitude.
Why am I discussing this in an article about recovery? Because this environmental factor, and the type of exposure, need to be considered when planning training load and recovery time. Stress is stress. Severe Hypoxia is a large stress on the system. Account for it with extra CHO (carbohydrate intake) and food intake in general, watch your fluid and electrolyte levels, and ensure you are putting up your feet enough!
Next, just make sure you’re fit. You can buy all the gadgets in the world, but fitness and overall health will win out in the end. If you will be racing at altitude and you don’t have the chance to train at a similar height often, follow an acclimation protocol. I won’t go into detail here as that is very individual and race-based.
What Drinks Help Sore Muscles?
I personally wouldn’t resort to ‘drinks’ as a sole aid in muscle recovery, however, there are a few which can assist in the recovery process. Before I briefly write about this, can we give a big shout-out to water first and foremost? Water is your friend! Extra bold this if you have heightened environmental stressors too.
Tart Cherry juice, such as my favourite, Cheribundi, aids in sleep and therefore can assist in recovery. This is due to the higher melatonin content in tart cherries.
Magnesium powder such as this one by Natural Vitality has helped my sleep and inflammation, although I’m not a regular user. I prefer to get most of my nutrients from food (macro and micro!)