You have definitely heard about recovery and know you need to do it, but do you actually know what it is? It is more than injury prevention — though that is a result of proper recovery — and certainly isn’t just about getting enough sleep at night (though sleep is a huge component). Because you probably already know about a few of the pieces that add up to this full rehab for your body, we talked to the experts to find out what pieces of the puzzle you may be missing.
They share the biggest misconceptions about what recovery actually entails and the best recovery for you based on your runner type.
WHAT IS RECOVERY, REALLY?
As most runners know — and have felt — running puts a lot of stress on your body. To put it simply, proper recovery is the way your body learns to adapt to that stress. For your body to adapt, you need to be fueling and resting — both actively and through sleep — so it has what it needs to get stronger.
“Proper recovery allows one to not only avoid injury, but also positively adapt to stress (meaning you get stronger), explains Philadelphia running coach John Goldthorp, owner of Fix Your Run. “To be clear, you need to progressively stress your body over time to get better, but you need to make sure you are countering this with enough recovery.”
How do you know when you’ve found the proper balance? Goldthorp says it is when you aren’t getting hurt and you are making incremental improvements during training (all while enjoying it.) If you need a simpler way to remember how recovery works in training, he notes the equation shared by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness in the book “Peak Performance.” The authors contend that “stress + rest = growth.” Goldthorp stresses if you can balance that equation on a daily, weekly and yearly level, you’re doing recovery right.
“As you accumulate damage from an intense workout or a long workout, you generally need to rest so that you can come back and do it again,” adds Tyler Mangum, a sport scientist and Seattle-area endurance coach. “Training is, after all, an adaptation to stress, and each adaptation needs time to heal itself so that your body can heal and come back to take it on again while adapted to that stress.”
WHAT YOU’RE PROBABLY GETTING WRONG
A common topic — runner or not — is that as a whole, we aren’t getting enough sleep. Because sleep is such a big part of recovery, if you are only logging a few hours of shut eye per night, you aren’t giving your body time to recover properly. Even if you think you are getting enough, it turns out you probably aren’t.
“You think you ‘don’t need ‘that much sleep?’ asks Goldthorp. “Well maybe you can function, but I bet you’d perform even better if you increased your sleep. Shoot for more. Already sleeping 9 hours? Go for 10. Getting 6 hours a night is absolutely not enough if you want to see great results from your training.”
He adds that this includes setting up your room for optimal sleep by making sure it is cool and dark, without electronics nearby to reduce the temptation for more screen time. As stated above, sleep isn’t the only component to proper recovery; some recovery is done while you are actively moving.
One form of active recovery — tapering — is something runners often get wrong. When you taper you are still running, but the process involves resting in the period leading up to a big race, often by decreasing your mileage. Because we think of this period as a time of rest it can be easy to back off of your training too much, meaning your body actually loses aerobic fitness in the lead up.
“Often, runners will rest for two weeks (14 days) without doing any intensity or anaerobic level training before their big race,” explains Mangum. “Rest is, of course, essential to recovering from a sustained amount of load/tolerance to impact, however losing aerobic fitness can happen in as little as 9–12 days. Your mitochondrial density (the amount of little engines in your muscles) can decrease in as little as 12 days, as can blood plasma volume, which is what composes about 55% of your total blood. That’s quick!”
Because of this, Mangum has his athletes reduce total load in those two weeks leading up to a race but keeps some form of intensity in their workouts up to 3–4 days prior to race day. Because recovery is made up of multiple components, this intensity doesn’t put as much stress on the body as it would experience during the peak of training. Runners still benefit from the active recovery of tapering, while sleep and other components such as proper fueling and stretching do their part of the job, too.
RECOVERY ISN’T ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL
Of course, recovery isn’t going to look the same for an elite runner as it is for someone training for their first half-marathon. For most runners, our long run is often the mileage a pro is running when they are in recovery mode. Because of this, what you do to recover is going to vary based on what you are training for and how many miles you are logging during training. Your recovery may involve adding an extra rest day — with no workout — to your schedule or doing some active recovery in the pool or on the elliptical. Mangum urges you to understand you don’t need to go all-in all the time.
“A great physical therapist I know said to me, ‘Running is a contact sport,’ and it’s absolutely true,” shares Mangum. “There’s a tremendous amount of stress on bones, joints and muscles. Even if you’re not feeling stressed from a cardiovascular sense from a run, any runner will attest that impact plays a contributing factor in injury. As we do non-impact training, just remember that you only have one heart, and that heart is adaptive and can be trained regardless of if you’re sustaining load or not.”
Because of this, it is OK to mix up your running with non- or low-impact workouts or even walks during the day. Goldthorp agrees and adds that whether you choose active recovery or simply resting can come down to personal preference and what makes you feel the best.
“At the root of recovery is circulation,” adds Goldthorp. “If you want to recover faster, then you need to increase circulation. A little goes a long way; that’s why low-intensity movement like walking, an easy bike session, a swim or pool-walking session, yoga or a contrast shower (alternating between hot and cold water) are all effective.”