Recovery Rundown: Healing Your Body after a Run
Running is likely an important part of your life. If not, you’re probably in the wrong place (but welcome anyway). To keep yourself moving without injury long into the future, your post-run recovery strategy is as important as the run itself. The repetitive motions of running can lead to micro-tears in muscle fibers, inflammation, and the buildup of waste products. Don’t worry. This isn’t abnormal. It’s part of the process that’s urging your body to improve. However, without adequate recovery these issues accumulate, increasing the risk of overuse injuries and negatively impacting your running performance.
Here are some techniques that will help your body fully benefit from wearing out all those running shoes.
Hydration or “Drink water, dummy!”
You come back from a run, you sweat on the dog, curse at the cat for trying to trip you, check your phone to see if anyone cared if you died or not, then think about how you need to quickly shower before you get on with your day. There are so many opportunities for what neuroscientists call “doorway moments” that it’s easy to forget to do the one thing your body wants most of all after an intense run. The correct answer is “water” in case your first thought was “to collapse.”
Hopefully, you have my running gang’s past articles and you drank plenty of water in the hour or two leading up to your run. Even if you drank water during your run because it was especially long or hot, your body will continue to perspire at a high level long after you take off your running shoes. Your body needs that sweat replaced so it can efficiently repair itself and recover.
I’m not going to tell you exactly how much to drink. You can figure that out yourself by your thirst level (duh), the color of your urine (gross), excessive feeling of fatigue, a dry mouth, or simply going dizzy and crashing to the floor. If you Google how much water you should drink, you will find that the answers are all over the place. Unfortunately, the original guidance people used for decades was based on poor research and it’s taking a long time to purge it. It’s safe to say that you should be consistently drinking water all day so that you aren’t going for a run a quart low.
Drink water as soon as you are done with your run. Don’t delay. Also, notice I said water. You don’t need to drink some engineered athletic drink or water infused with anything special unless you are a top-flight athlete following your training doctor’s instructions. As a fellow runner is fond of saying: “Don’t fall for the marketing and just drink the damn water!” (with or without the eyeroll).
Torture (aka Stretching)
For a lot of runners, stretching isn’t just something you do before a run. It’s an essential part of their recovery and helps improve flexibility, reduce muscle soreness, and increase blood flow to help the body repair damage. Stretching techniques require a dedicated article to really cover, and many books have been written on the subject. I’ll just quickly mention a few important ones that you should include in your post-run recovery routine. As a general rule, hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat at least two times during your session.
Quads Stretch: Stand on one leg and pull your other heel towards your glutes. Some people slowly add in a forward lean but be careful not to lose your balance or you could pull a muscle as you try to stop your fall.
Hamstring Stretch: Sit with one leg extended and the other leg bent so the sole of your foot touches your inner thigh. Reach for your toes. In my case, I pretend that my toes are on my ankles.
Hip Flexor Stretch: Kneel with one foot forward and gently push your hips forward. It’s a little like doing the hokey-pokey but looks more stupid.
Calf Stretch: Place your hands against a wall and step one foot back, keeping the heel on the ground. Some runners stretch both calves at the same time. Why this part of your body is named after a baby cow, I have no idea.
Foam rolling is not as much fun as it sounds, but some runners swear by it for working on knotted muscles and reducing soreness. I’ve seen some snobby articles refer to it as “self-myofascial release” which gives me the giggles every time, especially when I picture some of the foam rollers I have seen for sale. Inappropriate thoughts aside, the idea is to rub things against your body until you feel a release.
No. I can’t keep a straight face either. See the image above if you don’t know what a foam roller is. They come in various densities and textures. The firmer they are, the more intense the sensation and the deeper the pressure can reach into your muscle. I suggest avoiding the knobbly ones unless you really know what you are doing. The soft ones are good for laying your head on and passing out.
The common use case is to lay it on its side and position it between your sore muscle and the floor. The weight of your body pushes the muscle against the roller making you either scream in pain or make noises that you often hear reverberating through cheap hotel walls. If you have dogs, they will usually come running over at this point and ecstatically lick your face to thank you for the entertainment. I find that a super firm, smooth roller works wonders on my tight IT band when nothing else helps. It’s also good for calves, hamstrings, and quads. Use it on each sore muscle group until you feel a difference. I don’t think it’s possible to overuse it, but I find it usually takes at least two minutes of rolling to feel the benefit.
As to whether the effects of regular foam rolling are only temporary or also offer long-term effects, I couldn’t find any references to really good studies. This is one of those “if it works for you keep doing it” things. Unless you accidentally step on the roller and fall on your ass, it doesn’t seem like you can damage yourself, and it’s something you can do while watching baking shows or listening to true crime podcasts.
Nutrition (Shoveling in food)
Your body needs the right nutrients to recover effectively. After a run, consume a balanced meal or snack that includes carbohydrates for energy replenishment, protein for muscle repair, and healthy fats for overall well-being. Consider foods like lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. A fellow runner wrote a lot more about this in a recent article you might be interested in.
The timing of your post-run meal or snack is a crucial aspect of effective recovery. Eating at the right time can optimize the replenishment of glycogen stores, muscle repair, and overall recovery. Here’s a guide to when to eat after a run:
The 30-minute window
Eating a balanced meal or multi-part snack within the first 30 minutes after your run is the sweet spot for not just recovery but weight control. During this time, your tortured body is more receptive to efficiently absorbing nutrients. These three physiological processes are especially important during the half-hour window, but they aren’t the only ones.
Glycogen Replenishment: Your muscles are most efficient at replenishing glycogen stores that you depleted while running immediately after you finish. Eating carbs during this time helps accelerate this process without spiking insulin levels as long as you aren’t shoveling in junk.
Protein Synthesis: Muscle protein synthesis goes into overdrive after running. If you consume high-quality proteins within the 30-minute window, you enhance the repair and growth of muscle tissues.
Reducing Cortisol Levels: Strangely, the stress hormone, cortisol can become elevated during and after intense running sessions. A healthy, post-run meal helps your body reduce cortisol levels, leading to better recovery.
The 2-Hour window
While consuming a nutritious meal or snack within the 30-minute post-run window is best, the benefits of post-run nutrition do not completely fade for up to two hours. If you can’t eat properly during that first 30 minutes, getting it inside you within the larger 2-hour window is the next best thing. This should come as a relief to those runners, try as they may, just cannot eat so soon after exercising.
Everyone’s Favorite Recovery: Rest
Fortunately for lazy people like me, simply resting is an important part of recovery. Your body needs time to repair and adapt to whatever new level you pushed it to. Along with making sure to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep at night (good luck if you have young kids or a cat), add in at least one rest day a week. I usually take one day of the weekend as a rest day unless I’m doing back-to-back training runs on purpose. Additionally, I take a day off in the middle of the work week. Some people run every day and that seems to work for them. If your “run” is more like jogging while looking for someone to chat with, then you should have no problem. If you are the type of runner who is always trying to improve and you still want to run everyday, be sure to greatly vary your intensity. Your body really does need time to repair itself in order to serve you better.
Massage: a Message
If you are a rich asshole with the time and resources to get a professional massage after your runs, then consider that a lot of people work their asses off and still struggle to feed their families, cover healthcare, and housing expenses. Wouldn’t it be better to stick to a reasonable lifestyle and pay back some of that money you made from the work of others by donating it to worthy causes that help improve the world that we all have to live in?