Running recovery – Dr Juliet McGrattan explains how best to recover from a run

Many runners only focus on running and don’t give much thought to recovery, yet how well we recover from a run determines when and how successful our next run will be. Recovery also influences how effective we are in our life outside running. Not being able to charge down the stairs to your meeting or having your parenting skills reduced because you’re constantly tired is no fun at all.

If you want to bounce back quickly from your run and get the most benefits from the effort you’ve put into it, it pays to think about what you’re doing between runs. Let’s take a look at simple things we can all do to maximise our recovery and see which recovery tools are worth investing our time and money in.

Before you run

So much of recovery is about what happens before you run, not afterwards. Treat your body with respect and care every day and you will recover more quickly and effectively. Here are three important areas to address to get your body in the best recovery shape:   

1. Training progression.

If you overload your body, you’ll suffer more and recovery will take longer. Think about how intense DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) can be when you’ve pushed yourself further or faster than usual. It’s crucial to increase your training in a gradual manner. You want just enough stress to trigger the body to strengthen itself but not so much that you need prolonged recovery or cause injury. Avoid big step ups in distance, frequency and intensity of training and follow a graded plan.

2. Nutrition.

Your body is constantly maintaining itself, day and night. To do this, it needs a consistently well balanced and healthy diet to provide the building blocks. It requires sufficient energy, vitamins and minerals to carry out its work. Just giving it some good stuff after your run is not enough. Your ability to recover is influenced by your overall nutrition and not just your post run smoothie.

3. Rest and sleep.

Of course it’s possible to pull a hard training session out of the bag on very little sleep but if you’re living in a constant state of sleep deprivation or inadequate rest, your ability to recover will be impaired. Good recovery comes from weeks and months of prioritising rest and sleep, not just an early night after your event, although that’s important too. If you’re not getting the results you want from your running, an extra rest day or an earlier bedtime might be the answer.

After you run

Let’s move on to actions that might speed up the recovery process after a run. Things to put ourselves in the best shape to jump out of bed the next day ready to run again. Here are some actions to consider:

Cool down
How much benefit an active cool down, such as jogging slowly for 15 minutes within an hour of your run, will give you in terms of recovery is unclear. It certainly helps to reduce your breathing rate, pulse and body temperature to normal levels. Study results are varied but active cool downs don’t seem to reduce DOMS. They do seem to reduce blood and muscle lactate (a waste product of exercise) and pH back to normal levels but that will happen over time anyway and it’s not clear whether doing that more quickly will improve your recovery or benefit your performance the next day.

It’s important to refuel properly after a run to maximise your recovery. The priorities are hydration, protein and carbohydrates. Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth; aim for at least 20g after finishing a run (and eat regular protein throughout the day too). Alongside the protein, you need carbohydrates. Carbs are the body’s main energy source and they’re stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Those stores get used up as you run, last around two hours and need to be replenished soon after exercise. The window within which you need to do this is debatable but it seems that men have a longer window to refuel after exercising whereas women should still aim for the widely reported thirty-minute window.

Compression wear
It’s always difficult to assess something that has a lot of variables. Compression wear is one of those areas. You need to consider the compression strength, the length of the garment, how long it was worn for, the fitness level of the individual and more. Currently the biggest gains seem to be in terms of recovery of muscle strength and power after resistance exercise. Wearing compression kit after your run might be something you want to look at as part of your recovery toolkit.

Cold water immersion
Plunging yourself into an ice bath or cold river after a run has become increasingly popular. There are varied results from research and more studies are needed to determine the ideal length of immersion, temperature and depth of water as well as which type of exercise it’s used for, how soon afterwards and whether long term use might affect your adaptation to exercise. Women seem to have a different response to cold water, may get larger benefits and not need such low water temperatures. Taking the plunge can reduce DOMS and how hard you feel your body is working. These are subjective measures. When it comes to objective measures such as blood lactate and creatine kinase levels however, the findings are not as clear. This makes it hard to really pin down the mechanics of how it works.

A massage certainly feels like it’s doing you good but is it worth the long wait in the queue at races?  Again studies are varied but a meta-analysis (combining results of multiple studies) found that it might help to reduce or improve DOMS. It might also help you to feel a little more flexible. It doesn’t however give you any gains in terms of performance. Self-massage is often done with a foam roller and might help you to recover in terms of easing the pain of sore muscles and improving flexibility but more research is needed to determine the ideal timing, pressures, techniques and duration of rolling.  

Interestingly, the latest research isn’t pointing towards stretching as a big component of a good recovery. In fact, static stretching too soon after a run could be detrimental in recovery. Holding a muscle in a static stretch can reduce the blood flow to it right at a time that it needs maximum blood flow. Static stretching is probably best done away from your run and considered as a way to increase flexibility and for relaxation and wellbeing rather than as a running performance enhancer.  

Mental recovery
It’s important to think about mental recovery too. To be ready to run again you need to have processed your last run and be in the right mindset to take on the next challenge. Some of the recovery techniques mentioned make you relax or feel good. That in itself might be a factor which improves your recovery. A bad run can throw you off track and knock your confidence. Debriefing with friends or just being able to put it behind you is important and don’t forget, a good run needs celebrating too.

How best to recover is a very individual thing. Often what feels good is the right thing to do. Research is lacking in lots of areas and can’t account for how we feel as individuals and what works for every one of us. Have fun experimenting but don’t forget to have a holistic approach to recovery and always address the basics of sleep, nutrition and graded training.