I recently quizzed experienced athletes and coaches about their recovery strategies. In particular, I wanted to find out how to boost recovery after longer runs.
Some of the tips I heard were the same between coaches, but there were also some unconventional techniques. In particular, these were exposure to different temperatures and choice of post-effort nutrition (chocolate milk anyone?).
I pulled the best answers together into two lists: activity advice and nutrition advice to boost recovery. As a bonus, you’ll also find my own 3 tips for recovery at the end of this article.
9 Active Recovery Strategies
In order to cash in on all the training, get the rest. If you can’t run as fast as you want to, you haven’t rested enough – Ted Corbit
1. Run a cooldown run after the workout. Also, do light static stretches especially on the spots that are tight.
2. Take a cold shower to lower your body temperature, reduce inflammation and swelling. You can also submerge into an ice bath. Some athletes soak their legs in epsom/magnesium salts right after their workouts.
3. Contrary to the cold soak, some athletes prefer soaking in hot water. Craig Hughes, who has been racing since the late seventies states: “I found over time that the best way to recover from a long run was to soak in a hot tub for thirty minutes or so. The hot water tends to alleviate sore muscles and helps you get back to normal more quickly”.
4. Wear compression on affected areas to restore healthy fluid exchange and reduce swelling. Some athletes, like the Indonesian trail runner Daniel Jensen reported wearing compressions socks during sleep.
5. Every athlete mentioned foam rolling and other mobility techniques. Yet for all of them, this was an occasional ‘treat’, not surprising given the brutal nature of applying mobility tools to soft tissues.
6. Elevating the feet comes as a close second to wearing compression. One runner said this was his go-to activity, more important than stretching even. He tends to elevate his legs against a wall for 5-10 minutes, or until his feet feel numb. Per his estimate, this simple practice reduces soreness by almost 30%.
7. Some athletes like to schedule a recovery activity the very next day – this can be a very easy recovery run, dynamic stretches and/or yoga. Yet some others tend to avoid any running whatsoever the day after a long run, even if they feel well.
8. Some athletes emphasised muscle memory. One noticed that doing 4-6 stride outs immediately after a run led to a better gain in speed, since the body remembered the movement patterns.
9. Ted Corbit, the father of long-distance running, once said: “In order to cash in on all the training, get the rest. If you can’t run as fast as you want to, you haven’t rested enough.” This contradictory principle is the least favourable to highly driven runners. Yet every single experienced athlete swears by this one ‘rest technique’: get enough sleep.
You can just take a nap right after a run. Anything up to 3 hours will allow for greater recovery. A barefoot marathoner Humberto Ramos Fernandez has a specific napping strategy: “If possible I take a nap usually lasting at least 50% of the run length. If I run for 3 hours then a 1.5 hour nap will be a minimum.”
5 Nutrition-Based Recovery Strategies
1. Every athlete goes for a light meal right after the long run. They opt for a meal rich in carbohydrates and protein. Some (but very few) are adamant about including healthy fats to their diets. This includes fish oil caps, avocados and coconut oil.
2. Most athletes make sure to hydrate and replenish electrolytes. They do this by adding electrolyte tabs to some water or consuming extra mineral salt with food. Some athletes are very specific in timing their water intake. One athlete stated that they take a sip every 10mins of the run. Others set an alarm to consume honey and/or an energy gel every 45mins to prevent accumulative fatigue and thus recover quickly afterwards.
3. Some athletes prefer plant-based food over animal protein. For example: one athlete eats a tonne of fruit, melons, cantaloupes, oranges, bananas, dates instead of consuming any cooked or animal protein rich meals.
4. Other athletes have specific snacks as recovery meals. For example Ethan Rambacher, who has ran 6 marathons and counting, goes for pretzels and nuts. He states that these are perfect to restore glucose levels as well as electrolyte balance.
5. Give chocolate milk a go. This drink has been hyped up across the obstacle and endurance communities. Serial marathoner Roy Narten said this drink is his go-to meal: “I eat a protein recovery bar (containing 20g protein) and drink chocolate milk. Works like a charm.”
3 recovery strategies I use and prescribe to my trainees, that were not listed
1. Consume natural anti-inflammatories: a pill of turmeric (curcumin) combined with bioperine is probably the best supplement any high-performing athlete can take daily.
2. Consume collagen-rich foods. For example bone broth is a superfood drink rich in minerals and nutrients essential to boost recovery.
3. Your mind is your body. To recover faster you need to stay motivated and reduce stress rather than exposing yourself to more of it. You can achieve clarity and allow your body to heal by meditating, having a relaxing walk with other people or pets. The resulting release of oxytocin (the feel-good and social bonding hormone) reduces the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) in your system.
As you can see some of these strategies do contradict each other. However, you can easily find a set of techniques that will fit your lifestyle preferences. As any experienced runner knows, even the smallest tweak to your habits can make a huge difference recovery and race performance.