How to Recover from a Hard Workout:
One of the biggest factors for me and other runners that are looking to start making significant improvements to their running is mastering the recovery balancing act, and not just with injuries either. When doing a hard workout or race you are breaking down your body’s muscle tissues one day and the next day you are recovering and rebuilding them.
Often times you don’t even feel sore or tired during your recovery days, however, it is still important to not push yourself too hard as to not fully recover from the previous workout and not fully realize the gains that you made. For those of you who have been running with me or are friends with me on DailyMile are probably having a hard time reading this being that I just did 20 miles on my “recovery” day just last week. Ok, you got me, but here is my reasoning. Yes, this is certainly a lot of miles in the day after a hard workout but I am trying to get my body used to a mid week “medium-long run” as Mr. Pete Pfitzinger prescribes in my favorite training book Advanced Marathoning for some of the high mileage programs, normally on Wednesdays. I did go a little too fast but I have found that personally I am able to “recovery” while still putting on some miles, the keys are to break the miles up into 2 or more separate workouts and to keep the pace easy.
What is the goal of an effective recovery?
This may mean different things to different people, but the main goal is to help your muscles to rebuild after they have been broken-down or stressed from a previous workout. When you stress your muscles and tendons during a hard workout you actually breaking down the muscle tissue and damaging it slightly. However, the amazing part about the human body is that if you allow it to recover properly you will become strong than you were before. This is the fundamental process of any sort of athletic training, that is why in almost all sports you have hard days and easy/recovery days. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that you do get better on your hard workouts but rather during your recovery days when you are rebuilding.
Below of some of the things that I’ve tried and right now I use almost all of them and most of the time a combination of them.
1. Good Cool Down-Recovery starts the minute you stop your workout, this means doing a good cool down. This is an often ignored step in the recovery process but it can make a big difference. When doing a hard workout, especially a speed workout where there is lactic acid build up in your muscles. Many people still believe that you need to run a couple miles to cool down and get the lactic build up out of your muscles but in reality you only need a few minutes of light easy jogging to flush the lactic acid from your muscles. This also helps to simply easse your muscles from the heightened state of activity that they were just in. I recommend doing about a 5 minute easy jog or walk right after you get done with you workout, you’ll know when your cooled down when your heart rate returns to a zone 1 or 2. Heart Rate Zone Chart
2. Post Workout Stretching-Now that you have done your cool down it is time to get you post workout stretch in. Now for many ultra running and a lot of distance runners in general stretching may not be on your list of things you do at all. Yes, I know that there has been a lot of recent studies on how stretching has been proven to not have any really benefit. However, a lot of the studies that I have read about were focused on pre-workout stretching, which to be honest I don’t really do. I believe that a good warm-up is more important than stretching for the type of running that I do. I do normally do a post-workout stretch though, after my muscles have been warmed up I feel there are benefits to stretching, especially if yo have any problem areas.
3.Foam Roller– I have recently been using foam rollers over the past few years after having issues with my IT Band. Now I use a foam roller after most of my harder workouts to help to massage my legs and again help to promote blood flood. I recommend using the firm rollers as they do the best at providing a deep massage to your muscles. Now, I will have to warn you that this will not be a nice relaxing massage, it will be a fairly intense feeling, but that means you are doing it correct. You will want to go nice a slow when rolling your legs or any muscles to make sure that you are getting an effective massage to the muscles that you are focusing on. Good video on foam rolling.
4. Nutrition-Refueling is an extremely important part to recovering well and it is often overlooked. When you are done with your workout ideally you would want to get some type of fuel source into your body as soon as possible, within the first 15 mins of ending your workout ideally and within 45 minutes if possible. This is because within the first 45 minutes of ending your workout your muscles are the most receptive to aborning nutrition. So what should you eat, well if you can get .8 grams of carbs per 2.2 lbs of your body weight and .3 grams of protein for every 2.2 lbs in a liquid form that would be ideal. For example I weight about 136lbs, so I’d want to get about 50g of carbs and 19g of protein. There are a lot of supplements out there that can provide these easy refueling options for you. I don’t really use supplements so at this point I do not have any recommendations other than a quick meal that you can get right after your workout. Chocolate milk is actually a great option.
5. Ice Baths-this is a fairly well known and commonly used practice to help recover from workouts and other activities. Though there are different techniques used the basis of using ice baths is to reduce the swelling of the muscle that have been worked out, this will help to promote blood flow. Ice baths are pretty straight forward, you submerse parts or your entire body into cold water for up to 20 minutes at a time. At longer and you can actually start to damage tissue, I’d recommend 2-3 sessions of 10 minutes in 10 minutes out. One helpful hint is that you do not need to actually have the water filled with ice or just over 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it just has to be significantly colder than your body temperature, which will still be uncomfortable trust me. So basically if you turn your faucet on to as cold as it can get you don’t really need to add ice.
6. Hot/Cold Therapy-this is similar to the ice baths but you are adding a hot or warm component. Many pro runners will rotate from ice baths to hot tubs after hard workouts. This is done to get to benefits of ice baths but also helps to promote even more blood flow when you alternate from hot to cold. Unless you have two tubs at home what I find works well as a substitute switching between hot and cold in the shower. No, this is not nearly as effective as full submersion but it is a lot easier and fairly effective. I will generally end with the opposite of the weather outside, so here in MN end with hot tub in the winter and end with an ice bath in the summer. About 10 minutes in each and again not exceeding 20 minutes in either.
You can also get a similar effect at the pool that has an actual hot tub and lap pool. Because most lap pools are kept at a pretty cool temp there is enough of a temp change between the two to have a similar effect.
7. Recovery Tights-This is a relatively new option in recovery for most athletes, but I really like this option as a supplemental recovery technique. The tights are specially designed to help to reduce swelling and promote blood flow to your legs through compression. Yes, there are a lot of compression tights out there but these are specifically design for recovery, so they are a bit more tight than normal compression wear and I would not recommend using the Skins Recovery tights for workouts as they are not as comfortable as the active wear tights. Basically these tights are trying to produce the same effect as ice baths and hot/cold therapy without the discomfort of the cold or hot.
In my experience they do not do as good of job as icing or hot/cold therapy but they are great for after icing. I will often wear them to bed after a hard workout and I’ve heard of people wearing them on long drives or plane rides and even to work if they sit at a desk a lot. They do not provide quite as much benefit as icing or hot/cold therapy, but if you whimp out on the ice bath this is better than nothing. I have a pair of Skins Recovery Tights and really like them.
8. Easy early morning run-One thing that I have recently found to be surprisingly effective is going for a very easy run the morning after a hard workout. I am talking a jog for a couple mile two to five at the very most. Normally during this run I’ll feel horrible, usually really sore and tired legs and it takes a lot to just go a mile or two but that’s all you need. You are just trying to get the legs moving and blood flowing and work out any soreness in your legs. I have trudged through two miles in the morning at a 10-12 minute mile pace and then later that evening felt like my legs were fully rested. Remember you do not want to push yourself at all on this run it is just to work out some of the soreness in your legs, the idea is recovery.
So there you have it, these are some of the things that I’ve been doing to help recover and get myself ready to run and race again the next day. Let me know what you think and if you have things that work for you please share.