The 5 Recovery Mistakes You’re Making That Are Hampering Your Recovery From Hard Workouts
Recovery is one of the most important elements of training. In fact, I’d argue it’s even more important than the hard workouts you do.
Without recovery, training is just wasted time with no opportunity to actually improve. It’s no wonder then that runners focus, or should be focusing, so much of their attention to recovery.
Unfortunately, like many aspects of training, many runners are unintentionally hampering their recovery thanks to pervasive myths based on outdated science. In this article, we’ll look at five of the most common ways runners get recovery wrong and how you can make sure you don’t fall into these traps.
Mistake #1: You’re taking Ibuprofen or Advil
Like many runners before you, when faced with a slight twinge, inflamed tendons, or delayed muscle soreness from training, you may have popped a few non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs for short), such as ibuprofen and Advil.
However, as our understanding of inflammation has evolved, we now know that anti-inflammatory drugs can actually limit or cancel out the very training benefits we’re so desperate to achieve.
Our outdated view of inflammation suggested that inflammation delayed healing and removing it as quickly as possible would aid in the recovery process. But, we now understand that inflammation is a crucial first-step in the body’s natural healing process.
Inflammation is the body’s way of activating specific cells (mainly leukocytes, monocytes and macrophages), which help to repair the muscles. You can still recover without inflammation, but it will likely take longer without the help of these cells.
Moreover, we also know that anti-inflammatory drugs can actually limit training adaptations. One study on the effects of Ibuprofen on skeletal muscle showed that taking ibuprofen during endurance training canceled running-distance-dependent adaptations in skeletal muscle. Another study confirmed in the laboratory that the use of NSAIDs after exercise slowed the healing of muscles, tissues, ligaments and bones.
The research is clear. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil and ibuprofen after a workout will result in slower recovery times.
Mistake #2: Ice baths
Now that we understand a little more about the role of inflammation in recovery and for training adaptations, we need to reassess the use of ice baths as well.
Like NSAIDs, the goal of an ice bath is to reduce inflammation following a workout. But, we now understand that inflammation may actually help promote recovery and training adaptations. Moreover, reducing inflammation may inhibit fitness gains.
So, where do ice baths fit in now?
The Nike Oregon project (thanks to Steve Magness and Dr. Jeff Messer for outlining how the Oregon project uses ice baths) actually changes their use of ice baths depending on the phase of training they are in.
In the adaptive phase, when the athletes are trying to derive as much benefit from workouts as possible, they do not ice bath.
For the average runner, this type of phase would be when you’re hitting your hardest workouts (i.e. after a gradual build-up) and before the taper or the last 2 weeks of training.
In the restorative phase, when athletes are preparing their body’s for competition, they do use ice baths.
This is because in the last two weeks of training, you’re not looking to enhance fitness from a workout (since you can’t benefit from a workout in that short amount of time) but rather to feel as fresh and strong as possible.
You’re takeaway – don’t ice bathe after your hardest workouts or on a daily basis. Use ice baths in the final weeks of your training to help your body feel rested and strong for race day.
Mistake #3: You’re taking antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress
Oxidative stress, a term used to describe the release of hormones and other chemicals in response to physiological stress, is believed to inhibit recovery and suppress the immune system. As such, many runners take antioxidants, like vitamin C to help reduce this oxidative stress and therefore recover faster.
But , like inflammation, our previous understanding of how antioxidants work is being challenged. It’s now understood that trying to block or reduce all oxidative stress can be detrimental to training adaptations.
First, “oxidative stress is essential to the development and optimal function of every cell,” write Peternelj and Coombes in their research.
In the context of exercise,these reactive oxygen species are part of the stress on your body that induces improvement. Blunting that oxidative stress will lead to less adaptation from the stress.
Moreover, further research has demonstrated that Vitamin C supplementation prevented the creation of mitochondria, the “power plants” of your muscle cells that are essential for endurance performance.
Therefore, loading up on antioxidants after a workout is not recommended. You should still eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that provide a healthy, natural source of antioxidants, but skip the pills.
Mistake #4: Not eating correctly after a workout (no food or not the right ratios)
Providing your body with the right nutrients to recover after a hard workout is essential to repairing the muscle fibers and providing your body the fuel it needs to stimulate recovery.
Many scientific studies have determined the optimal time and the amount and ratio of nutrients needed to be consumed in order to maximize the recovery process.
Ideally, nutrient intake should begin at least 30 minutes after you finish your run and continue for about an hour to 90 minutes after. (read more here)
During this time, you should consume a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. This means that for every 4 grams of carbs you consume you also need 1 gram of protein.
The first mistake many runners make is not eating anything within this recovery window. The most common reasons include (1) not being prepared with something to eat or drink; (2) not being able to stomach foods after a hard run; (3) or trying to lose weight and believing this will help.
To optimize recovery after a workout, you must eat within 1 hour, ideally within 30 minutes. If you can’t stomach solid foods, try recovery beverages (almost every company makes one) or even chocolate milk.
The second, more common mistake, is the consumption of too much protein post-workout.
Like most runners are hard-wired to think, more is better right? Not in the case of protein post-workout.
The consumption of too much protein after a workout will inhibit your body’s absorption of the carbohydrates by slowing the gastric emptying rate.
That’s why the optimal ratio is set at 4grams of carbohydrate for every 1 gram of protein. You should aim for 100 to 300 calories total.
Mistake #5: Not stretching, massaging or foam rolling
The concept of stretching has caught some major flak in the past few years (and rightfully so), which has resulted in many runners finishing a workout without properly treating their muscles.
The problem is that we lump all types of “stretching” into one big group with static stretching; yet, not all types of stretching are bad.
In fact, other types of “stretching” such as yoga, mobility drills, active isolated stretching and even foam rolling and the stick (which I consider akin to stretching) can be immensely helpful when it comes to promoting recovery.
Incorporating dynamic stretching after a run (active isolated stretching, drills, and mobility exercises) has been shown to help improve flexibility to help you execute the biomechanically sound movement patterns when running (such as proper hip extension).
Drills and mobility exercises have also been shown to help improve neuromuscular function and can serve as a cool down to help deliver blood and oxygen to the muscles that are in need of repair.
Foam rolling can also be a huge benefit. And, I am excited to announce a new guide to foam rolling we’re producing in a few weeks. It will be the most comprehensive guide available, so stay tuned.
In the end, you must expand your concept of stretching to better understand how it fits in with your recovery from hard workouts.
I hope this article helped open your eyes to some of the potential mistakes you’ve been making in your quest to enhance recovery. I know I certainly made all of them in my running career and I am grateful to know better now!