Strategies to optimize running recovery
Optimise your recovery after a run
What you eat and drink can help ensure faster recovery. Through correct use of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and hydration, your recovery strategy can be optimized. But it's not just your diet that impacts on your running recovery time ...
Both what you eat and what you do in the aftermath of a run will impact on your body's ability to recover in readiness for the next testing session. So how important is food, hydration, and other factors to aiding recovery for the runner?
Macronutrients and running recovery
Muscle energy stores are of the key factors determining when you can train hard again is muscle energy stores. Muscle cells store a limited amount of carbohydrate and very limited amounts of fats. Once you have used this stored energy up (a hard 90 minute session will often be enough to deplete these stores), so your body needs to get energy. This energy will come from the liver, from fat cells, or from the food and fluids ingested.
So maximize muscle energy stores by eating easily digested foods after training. The key is that muscles are designed to be able to absorb energy at greater rates after exercise, so the sooner you can eat, the quicker your muscles will be able to replace energy stores for your next workout. If you work hard on optimal replacement of muscle energy stores you will still need at least 36 hours between very intense sessions. If you do a poor job it could take as long as 72 hours.
Micronutrients and running recovery
There are several key micronutrients. Antioxidants (vitamin A, C and E) help remove damaging free radicals produced from training; there is some evidence that this will not only help recovery from training but may add to your lifespan. Don't take too much, though, as this can cause problems. BCAAs are a group of amino acids (proteins) that help aid recovery. A diet high in BCAAs reduces fatigue in the brain. Most health food shops stock BCAAs and can advise the best combinations.
Hydration and running recovery
Hydration is a major contributing factor to recovery. Starting a session hydrated and hydrating during the session will help, but also make sure you hydrate post run. One good method to know how much to drink, especially in the summer when you will be sweating a lot, is to weigh yourself pre and post training. When you complete your session, try to get back to your pre-session weight as soon as you can.
In addition to food and hydration startegies, there are other ways in which you can speed up your recovery after a hard training session:
Ice and cold water for recovery
After a run you can hose your legs down (especially your shins) with cold water. This helps reduce fluid build-up and is a strategy frequently used by horse trainers. Ice is also very effective for doing this and can be applied to localized areas.
Elevating the legs
Elevating the legs after training helps reduce fluid build-up. This elevation, combined with cold water and ice can be very effective for the injury prone athlete. Even a short period of 10 minutes can make a massive difference.
Relaxation, sleep and recovery
Your recovery is not going to be complete if you end up standing for hours at work after a hard session, so try and schedule your harder sessions when you know you can relax afterwards, and get some proper sleep. Research suggests that a short daytime sleep after training can promotes recovery by increasing circulating hormones. This is a strategy employed by Paul Radcliffe who likes to nap after a session. Around 20 to 40 minutes should be sufficient.
Using contrast therapy to aid recovery
Contrast therapy is using alternative cold and heat. After using ice or cold water on your legs, the runner then takes a very hot shower. Once the legs feel hot and are red with blood, the runner goes back to the cold water or ice. Repeat this several times.
Try to vary your runs and schedule them so that easier recovery runs come after a hard session. This allows more time to fully replace energy stores before the next hard session. A hard day then easy day approach is best.
Run on softer surfaces
Give your muscles and tendons an easier time by running on softer ground such as grass or trail routes. Running on soft surfaces helps reduce post training soreness. A good off-road training shoe will help you grip on potentially slippy surfaces.
Swimming and water running
Exercising in water is an effective way of promoting recovery. The water pressure helps to remove the waste products and extra fluids that can build up in the legs after running. Swimming is a good option because it uses the arms as well as the legs, preventing depletion of energy stores in the legs.
Massage and stretching
Most top athletes have a regular massage and stretch. Combined with contrast therapy they are excellent, but only have a light 'recovery' rub after very hard training sessions or races. Hard massage may slow down recovery, especially if you are not used to them.