Feel better after a workout—and the next time you head out for more kilometres—with this advice.
If you find yourself slogging during your runs lately, it’s time to examine your running recovery plan and see if you can make some improvements. When following a training plan with back-to-back run days or just many kilometres a week, recovery becomes crucial to your performance. After all, it’s during downtime that adaptations from your training can take hold and you feel better your next time out.
To help you fine-tune what you do on those days between workouts and long runs, we turned to experts to help create a recovery plan that fits right into your training plan. Steal these tips to bounce back from one workout and dominate the next.
Take Time to Warm Up
Recovery starts even before your run, says Roberto Mandje, New York Road Runners senior advisor on engagement and coaching. He suggests jogging slowly or walking for a few minutes before you start clocking kilometres and then stopping for a few dynamic stretches to prep your muscles for the actual run.
Those dynamic stretches might include walking lunges, butt kicks, torso twists, high knees, and leg swings (front to back and side to side).
John Vasudevan, M.D., associate professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of the Penn Medicine Running and Endurance Sports Program, suggests checking in with your breathing every 30 to 60 seconds to determine if you’re warmed up enough. “Usually it is an increased breathing rate (not heart rate alone) that signals that the body is now demanding a higher oxygen intake to meet anticipated demands from our muscles,” he says.
Cool Down After Every Workout
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As soon as you’re done with your run, jog very easy or walk for a half mile (or 10 minutes) to facilitate the return to “normal” status.
Cooling down assists the body in redistributing blood flow, lowers heart and breathing rate gradually, allows your body temperature to drop, and flushes metabolic waste products, which helps reduce muscle soreness. The main thing is don’t just stop running and head home for the couch.
When you’re done with your run and cardio cooldown, that’s when you might want to turn to some static stretching. Mandje suggests holding these stretches for 10 to 30 seconds and doing moves like toe touches (sitting or standing) and a standing quad stretch or calf stretch.
The day after a hard run is also a good time for gentle movement like a casual 20- to 30-minute walk, light stretching, or yoga, as these activities can help with blood flow and recovery too, says Elizabeth Corkum, New York City-based certified personal trainer and run coach.
Another way to ease muscle soreness: foam rolling. “A foam roller is a great tool in a runner’s arsenal that can be used both before and after a run,” says Mandje. Research suggests this self-massage technique can help your legs feel better for the next run so make sure you get it into your running recovery plan.
After a run, Mandje suggest rolling out the calves, quads, and even the lower and upper back. “All which will help work out kinks, knots and further promote blood flow and recovery, which will help with sore and stiff muscles,” he says.
Keep in mind that foam rolling should feel uncomfortable, but not outright painful, Vasudevan says, which is a sign you’re applying too much pressure. Aim to roll evenly across the muscle and not just on the tougher tendon tissue, too.
Focus on Nutrition
“Postrun nutrition is often the most important factor in jump-starting recovery, and usually something most of us are bad about,” says Corkum. “We get distracted after our runs, often eating an hour or two later.”
The best time to re-fuel postrun is within about 30 to 60 minutes. “Our bodies are eager to rebuild to the stress of training, but we need nutrition to do so optimally,” Corkum adds.
Your meal or snack after a run should include protein and carbs, which Corkum suggests getting from a smoothie with protein powder or Greek yoghurt with fruit. “Training adaptation is ultimately about consistently stressing the body, and then allowing the body to adapt to that stress,” she adds. “Runners will see and feel a big change in their recovery, and therefore overall adaptation if postrun nutrition is taken as seriously as the kilometres.”
Don’t forget that drinking plenty of water and getting some electrolytes should also factor into your re-fueling strategy.
Change Out of Wet Clothes
Wet clothing can chill you down too quickly after a run. By putting on dry garments, you keep your muscles warm, which promotes circulation that aids recovery.
Good blood flow brings much-needed nutrients to depleted muscles and carries metabolic waste away—exactly what you want following a run.
Analyse Your Training Plan
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Training plans should alternate hard and easy days, vary weekly mileage, build long kilometres in gradual increments, and have one or more days off from running. If you are bunching up hard workouts or not getting adequate rest, consider scaling back.
Scaling back might include taking more than one rest day between workouts. “Sometimes it takes an extra day or two to really feel the fatigue from a run—it may not be the day after, but two days after,” Corkum says. If that’s how you’re feeling, make sure you have two whole days between hard efforts.
Mandje agrees, offering this example for a solid schedule:
- Monday: hard interval or tempo run
- Tuesday: easy run
- Wednesday: easy or off
- Thursday: hard interval or tempo run
- Friday: easy or off
- Saturday: hard (long run)
- Sunday: easy or off
“The idea—regardless of how many days per week you run—is to pair any hard day with one or two easy days to ensure proper recovery before going hard again,” Mandje says.
Your easy days don’t have to mean lying on the couch (though that’s also allowed). But workouts like yoga or even cycling can also have a place on those easy days, Vasudevan says. If you notice your muscles feel sore when you start running again, though, then it’s probably time for a true day off.
Make Easy Days Actually Easy
Speaking of those easy days on the schedule, make sure you’re not running too fast. This is a very common mistake that enthusiastic runners make because they think this will make them get faster quicker—in actuality, this often creates unnecessary fatigue and increases the risk of injury.
Also, if you have a rest day on the calendar, take an actual rest day. “Often times, you hear of runners who use their day off as a day to cross-train,” Mandje says. “While this may work for some, it certainly takes away from true recovery. Despite the lack of pounding, your muscles and heart may still need that extra recovery time with limited to little strenuous activity.”
Focus on getting the most out of your hard days and your easy days. “The best way to recover in between workouts is to take the recovery as serious as you take the training,” Mandje adds.
Get More Sleep
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We just can’t talk about running recovery without mentioning sleep. “Sleep is the ultimate and best version of rest. This is when our bodies have the best opportunity to rebuild and recover,” says Corkum.
If you’re feeling like you just can’t recover or you’re constantly tired, burned out, or can’t focus, then turn your attention to getting more rest. You may need to set some boundaries when it comes to screen time or creating a wind-down routine at night to make quality shut-eye happen.
Mandje also says there’s power in napping. “Truth is, many of us with families, jobs and/or busy work/life balance rarely get as much sleep as we should,” Mandje says. “This is why I champion the restorative magic of naps.”
He recommends 15 to 20 minutes of rest to help amp up your recovery. “If you’re feeling more refreshed, then you’ll set yourself up even better for not just recovery, but also your upcoming training,” he adds.
Take Weather Into Account
In super hot and humid conditions, you probably want to dial back on your pace, intensity, and/or mileage. You might also need more rest days when it’s warm out, as well as more fluids and electrolytes to keep your body performing at it’s best.
“This means hydrating throughout the day, not just during the run,” Mandje says, suggesting you have a drink with more electrolytes in it the more you’re sweating.
In the winter, you’re probably focusing more on easy runs, but it’s extra important to warm up before your kilometres and to change out of sweaty clothes after.
The weather can come into play during your sleep too, so make sure your room is at an optimal temperature for you to catch zzz’s, Mandje adds.
Consider the Rest of Your Day
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“Our choices during recovery runs, rest days, and when we’re not running have a direct influence on how we feel, perform, and adapt to that next hard workout,” Corkum says. “Often, the opportunity to make the most of that key workout was the day before. So mindful choices when not running can make all the difference.”
It’s not just the activity you do throughout the day, but also how much you drink throughout the day, and the day before a long run that can also affect your overall recovery, according to both experts.
If you’re not feeling your best after a run, take a look at your physical activity and nutrition the day before and you might discover you need to make some changes, which will pay off in better running recovery.