Recovery from running hard workouts
Running fast workouts and nailing long runs is a key part of the training process. However, one of the most often neglected aspects of training, especially since runners are almost always obsessed with pushing harder each day, is the recovery process. In two previous posts I’ve discussed how the workout and recovery process works as well as the importance of keeping your recovery runs easy, but this post is going to outline what I call “the optimal recovery process”. Unoriginal name, I know, but I’m not fan of “patented” systems or industry jargon.
I understand that not everyone will have the time necessary to perform this routine after every hard workout. Some might be able to fit it in after long runs, others might be able to see it through once per month. While this is the ideal recovery plan, you’re free to pick and choose what you’re able to fit in after each workout. For example, the easiest elements, hydration and refueling, should be easy to get in after every run while the ice bath is a nice treat when you have the time. On a side note, this is what separates professional runners from the rest of the pack; in addition to running, drills, and strength training each day, elite runners will often spend 1-4 hours per day on recovery.
Recovery steps immediately after your workout or long run
After a hard workout or a tough long run, you should begin by hydrating within the first 10-15 minutes after stopping. Even if the temperature was cool, or downright cold, you still sweat a significant amount and you need to replace the fluid loss. An electrolyte solution like Gatorade works best and you should aim for 16-20oz of fluid. When running in the summer, you can use our sweat loss calculator to determine the exact amount of fluid you need to replace. For a more detailed look at hydration, see my article on how to hydrate after running.
Replenishing carbs and protein
After you’re hydrated, you can begin your stretching routine while also ingesting your post run snack or beverage. This post run fuel could be something like chocolate milk, Endurox, yogurt and granola, banana and peanut butter bagel with orange juice. You want to aim for a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. I’ve also experimented with glucose tablets (made for diabetics) directly after running, especially when I travel. The tablet is pure glucose, which stimulates the insulin response in the body and ignites the recovery process. It’s a quick and dirty trick if you’re crunched for time or have a sensitive stomach. For a more thorough look at post run nutrition, check out my article on post run recovery fuel.
The stretching and post run fueling should begin within 25-30 minutes of finishing your run. The stretching should last 10-15 minutes, focusing on the major muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, calves, and hips) as well as anything that is nagging or felt sore on the run. While the merits of stretching are a hotly debated topic in running circles, I believe stretching after a run is beneficial. If you have a foam roller and are experiencing any small injuries, it would also be beneficial to roll out on the foam roller to alleviate any knots and tightness.
After stretching, it’s time to hit the ice bath. Fill your bath tub with cold water and add ice until the temperature reaches a balmy 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, the ice should still completely melt, but it should take about 3-5 minutes for a normal size ice cube to do so. Next, grab a towel and your favorite magazine and submerse your entire lower body, up to your hips, in the water. Now, the trick to ice baths is surviving the first 3 minutes. Bite the towel and dream about your biggest goals. This will help you get through the hardest part of the ordeal. After 3 minutes or so, you’ll notice the temperature feels more temperate and you can actually relax a little. If you are a veteran ice bather, or just a sadistic human being, you can kick your legs a little to stir up the water. This will help circulate the warm water surrounding your body and make things cold again. Remain in the tub for 10-15 minutes. Trust me, the more you ice bath, the more comfortable this process becomes. After letting all the water drain from the tub, go ahead and take your shower. Your legs will feel cold for a few hours, but your muscles will thank you later.
Eat a well-balanced meal 1-2 hours after your run
After the ice bath, you’ll want to ensure that you get a well-balanced meal in your system. So far, you’ve had Gatorade and some light snacks. To completely refuel, your muscles need something more substantial. If you run in the morning, this could be breakfast – egg whites with veggies and whole wheat toast, oatmeal with fruit and toast, I even think pancakes are a decent choice if you top with fruit and yogurt. Lunch or dinner could be salad with a sandwich, pasta, or leftovers from the night before. You just want to consume a high quality meal with a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This will provide your body with the final nutrients it needs to top off the recovery process.
Take a nap or get a massage – what a luxury
After your meal, put your feet up, take a nap, and follow it up with a massage. I know this is where things can get “ridiculous”, as massages and naps are a fantasy and extreme luxury; however, I thought it should be included since this is the “optimal” recovery guide afterall.
Warm bath with epsom salts
About 60-90 minutes before bed, you should take a warm/hot bath in Epsom salts. Combine 4 cups Epsom salt with 1 cup baking soda and relax in the hot water for 10-15 minutes. After the bath, dry off and roll out your muscles with The Stick and get in a good stretching session. Not only with this help remove excess toxins from the muscles, the stretching before bed will ensure that you wake up feeling ready to go for your next run. Furthermore, the relaxing bath and the Epsom salts will help you sleep.
To sum up this routine in one easy to visualize chart:
- Hydrate as soon after your run as possible with Gatorade or electrolyte drink
- Stretch major muscle groups and anything that is sore or tight. Roll out any nagging injuries or problem areas.
- Eat a small meal that contains a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein
- Take an ice bath
- Eat a decent sized, healthy meal
- Nap, put your feet up, or get a massage
- Take an Epsom salt bath
- Roll out on the stick and stretch well
- Get plenty of sleep
As you can see, this routine is quite extensive. You won’t always have the time to get in all of these recovery protocols, but it does give you glimpse of the things you could do on those rare occasions. Do what you can, but at least now you have a plan. Do you have any recovery tips we can learn from? Leave us a comment, we would love to hear your thoughts.