One of the most important elements of successful training and racing is the one we often neglect: recovery. We’ll analyze our training plans endlessly, trying to get in all the perfect workouts and long runs. But if you haven’t factored recovery into your training, all that hard work could be squandered.
Recovery is where the magic happens, and it comes in a variety of forms. It can be active, such as an easy recovery run or brisk walk, or passive, such as adding an extra day off when needed or getting more sleep. Recovery has a place in your training on a weekly (or even daily) basis, and is especially essential after tough workouts and races.
While “prevention” and “recovery” may appear to be contradictory, you can avoid the need for extended downtime with smart preventative measures built into your training schedule. When you’re planning your daily and weekly training, be sure to address the following:
- Avoid the three “toos”: too much, too soon, too fast. Too much mileage or speed work before your body is prepared to handle it can lead you down the road to injury, which usually requires extensive recovery time.
- Space out your races. Races are meant for you to perform your best. Overscheduling yourself with races every weekend is a surefire way to prevent your body from fully recovering and reaching your potential.
- Get plenty of sleep. So easy to say, but so challenging to accomplish! We are often chronically sleep-deprived, preventing full recovery. As an athlete, strive to get at least 7–9 hours every night.
- Eat appropriately for your needs. Or as Michael Pollan wisely said, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Both under and overeating can be detrimental to your fitness and recovery.
- Add variety in your training. Whether it’s variety in your paces, the terrain you run on, or adding strength and dynamic flexibility work to your routine, being a well-rounded athlete allows your body to bounce back more readily from hard efforts.
Short, easy runs require minimal recovery other than some of the basic maintenance techniques mentioned above. But long runs or challenging speed sessions take a lot out of you, and recovering well is essential to staying healthy and making consistent progress.
Bouncing back from a hard workout begins before you ever finish the run, especially when you are running long. Unless you are deliberately training with minimal fueling, proper hydration and nutrition during your run helps you recover more quickly the moment that workout is complete.
Once the run is over, you should aim to follow a routine that includes the following:
- Within 15–30 minutes, eat a small meal that includes simple carbs as well as some protein.
- Hydrate! On hot, humid days it can be nearly impossible to replenish on the run, so make sure to hydrate once you finish. Colder runs may not leave you feeling quite as thirsty, but it’s equally important to stay hydrated.
- Include some dynamic flexibility and strength training. While the thought of doing more after your run may make you cringe, 10–15 minutes can go a long way toward keeping you healthy.
- Within 1–2 hours, have a larger meal that includes protein, lower glycemic index carbs and healthy fats. Continue to rehydrate throughout the day.
- If you have the luxury of a post-workout nap, go for it. There’s a reason former elite marathoner Ryan Hall called naps “business meetings” — they are critical to the recovery and health of many elite runners. If napping isn’t an option, at least try to get good night’s sleep after a hard workout. Take this seriously — this is where the recovery process truly begins as your body repairs the damage from your workout.
- Your training plan may include a recovery run the day after a hard workout. Keep this easy and remember the purpose of a recovery run is to enhance recovery, not fitness.
While hard workouts may leave you temporarily depleted, racing is even more taxing on your body. After a long, hard race like a marathon, the only thing you probably want to do is sit down for the rest of the day, but following through on your recovery process will allow you to heal more quickly and get back to racing and training.
Racing longer distances can cause a great deal of muscle damage. Since most runners (even the elites) never run the marathon distance in training, the mileage itself can be a shock to the body. Hilly races such as the Boston Marathon are especially damaging, as they require a great deal of eccentric muscle contraction.
Perhaps one of the best things you can do after a marathon is avoid sitting immediately, as challenging as that may sound. Walking can help prevent the cramping, lightheadedness and nausea that may come from an abrupt stop and drop in heart rate.
Grab something to eat and drink immediately after the race and keep moving for about 15 minutes. While ice baths are not always recommended during training because they can blunt your body’s adaptation to the stress of training, your post-race priority is solely recovery. So this may be a perfect time for an ice bath.
After your race, follow a similar nutrition/hydration plan to what you have done after workouts. Get plenty of sleep that night as well as a nap after the marathon if possible. Remember: Sleep is always your top recovery tool. While some gentle massage may be helpful, avoid any deep tissue work for at least a week to give your muscles time to recover.
No matter how much racing experience you have, perfecting the elements of a training plan can be a challenge. But recovery should always be a part of the process and is essential to your success!