As you progress through your training program, you may start to notice little aches and pains or discomfort. Recovery is always an important part of training, but as the volume and miles add up, it becomes even more important. There are both active and passive recovery techniques and combining them amplifies their effect on your body. Recovery is when your body heals itself from and helps you prepare for the next run. Being ready for the next run is sometimes as important as the run itself.
Fundamental to recovery, is rest. There should be periods of time in your plan where you are not running. Most beginner plans will have 1-4 days a week of not running. You can train successfully running 7 days a week, but these programs are less common so we won’t really discuss how that works. For the typical plan, those “non-running” days normally consist of cross training (more on that later), yoga/stretching days, or complete rest with no scheduled activity. This is time for your muscles to recover, heal, and adapt to the physical demands you are placing on it. I’ve mentioned this before, but easy days are the runs where you go slower than normal and generally shorter than normal too. This is a type of active rest. You are promoting blood flow to the target tissue which helps promote cellular healing and regeneration. This secretly becomes a runner’s favorite day later in training.
The most important rest for a runner, however, is sleep. Sleep is when your body heals itself the most. As you run more and more, your sleep demands will increase as well. Most people have heard that the body needs about 8 hours of sleep per night, and as a runner that number is really closer to 9 hours a night. I understand that is a lot of sleep for most working adults or parents with children who do not sleep well. I happen to be both of those things. It will not crater your training if you don’t hit 8 hours every single night, but over time that wear and tear makes you more susceptible to injury because those little micro injuries you sustained the days before have not healed. Guard your sleep to the best of your ability. There is a razor thin line between “Oh I’ll sleep in and get that run done later” (which typically means you won’t) and taking that rest so that you can perform better on a future run. Run smart. Not lazy. This is why I advocate for finding 2-3 times per day that you can get a run in, so you can rest when you need but can still get the mileage as well.
Cross training is exercising instead of running. Walking, biking, rowing, and strength training are common cross training activities for runners. Cross training does not have to be an “easy day” and I would argue it should be challenging for you. This is the chance to work on other muscle groups or to work more run-centric muscles in a different way that will help you for your upcoming run. Pounding on hard concrete day after day takes a toll on your joints and muscles regardless of how well you run. Cross training gives your body a break from this repeated stress and makes you more resilient to the training you are doing.
A side note here is to vary your running surfaces if you can. Concrete tends to be the hardest surface followed by asphalt. Softer surfaces are rubber tracks, dirt/chat/gravel trails, and grass or turf. Treadmills are on the softer side of things because they absorb some of the impact of landing. Look to incorporate some of the softer surfaces into your training a few days each week.
If you look online or in any running magazine, you will find literally hundreds of different tools you can use to “speed” your recovery or make it “more effective”. Truly, the majority of these things work to some degree. The main question is how much do they help? Obviously some work better than others, but finding good research on these tools is limited at best. Due to the sheer volume of devices, it’s impossible for large scale double blind trials to be conducted on everything. We also have to consider the purpose of the tool and how it is being applied which generally varies as well making conclusions on effectiveness difficult. Examples of recovery tools are massage guns, rolling sticks or balls, scraping tools, recovery compression devices, foam rollers, stretching straps or devices, and variations of all of these. Most people apply these tools before or after a run but some people use them for both.
So is it better to use them before or after? It depends. I have noted this in other blogs, but what you do before a run should get you ready to run. I said this primarily in relation to not doing static stretches before running, but you can carry that principle over to these things as well. Before a run we need to promote blood flow to the tissue, so any of the tools that promote that are probably going to have beneficial effects. Is that positive effect any better than a dynamic and activity specific warm up? Maybe, maybe not. If you feel like it helps, go for it. Massage guns, scraping tools, and foam rollers can help warm the tissue in different manners. My personal preference if using something before activity is to foam roll. Yes you get the direct foam roll effect, but when you roll calves, quads, and glutes you tend to use a lot of your body to accomplish the rolling. It may be that using those large groups of muscles to complete the foam rolling is where the benefit comes from, but if it helps, hey it helps. In summary, I would do more of a dynamic warmup and save the tools for the cool down or even later in the day.
We briefly discussed this when talking about rest days, but incorporating mobility work into your routine will help you stave off injury and keep you running. There are hundreds of “running stretches” or “yoga for runners” videos out there on the internet. Most will include your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves. This is good because these are the primary muscle groups used during runs. You can start fights by claiming you know exactly how to stretch the best, so I won’t do that for the sake of world peace. However, the general consensus is that you should keep the tissue under stretch for around 2 minutes total. 20-30s seems to be too short to affect tissue length and there are diminishing returns in holding stretches for much longer than 2 minutes. There is nothing wrong with these static stretches, but I still prefer more dynamic movements because they require whole body stability throughout the ranges you are working. If/when you do static stretches, put these after your run or on their own.
A good place to start for recovery work is getting enough sleep. Without enough sleep, everything else is just a band-aid. If you are getting the needed sleep, make sure you are doing something for an active cool down. Exactly what you do is up to you. My hope is that this has given you more confidence to start improving your recovery so that you can be optimizing your workouts when you do them.