Running Recovery Extreme: How to Bounce Back From Hard Training Quickly

by Jason Fitzgerald

Wouldn’t you like to run hard workouts and long runs and be able to recover well for the next day? Now you can. I’m going to share my recovery routine that helps me bounce back from marathon prep workouts and hard speed sessions. It combines nutrition, dynamic exercises, and sleep techniques to help you recover fast.

Running Recovery is Paramount to Performing at Your Best

It’s important to understand why you get sore after a hard run and why this is a good thing. When you run a hard workout, you break your body down. You get faster when your body has enough time and resources to heal the damage and adapt.

The key is to learn how to properly recover from long runs and hard workouts. After 12 years of competitive running, I’ve learned it’s an art and it’s taken me this long to implement everything correctly.

The problem is that a lot of runners don’t take simple measures to recover as much as possible from their running. Even when I was in college, the most we did after the majority of our runs was a quick stretch. Hardly enough when you’re putting in 80-90 mile weeks with a lot of tough workouts and races.

Injuries were common when I was in college and not only for myself. My teammates suffered their fair share as well. I think if we emphasized proper strength workouts and recovery during and after our workouts, we could have avoided most of our setbacks.

The purpose of a recovery routine is to allow your body to start the healing process immediately. See, you don’t get fit and develop endurance during a workout – in fact, it’s the opposite. A hard workout or a long run will break you down, compromise your immune system, and make you temporarily weaker.

After your body has time to adapt to the stress of that workout, it super-compensates for the extra stress you put it through and gets stronger. It’s essentially a defense mechanism. Your body wants to be able to better handle the workload and intensity you just put it through, so it develops more strength and endurance.

Focus on Long Run Recovery

I have a certain routine that I go through after all of my long runs. Its purpose is to maximize recovery and capitalize as much as possible on the fitness gains from the most important workout of the week for me. It’s so important that I consider it an extension of the workout itself. I pretend that I am still outside running during the recovery routine because it’s a vital part of the workout.

But why focus on the long run? For me, the long run is my hardest run of the week. At nearly 25% of my weekly running volume (which is about 80 based on the last month), it’s a challenging distance. I also incorporate faster running at the end of the run to develop additional aerobic support. I essentially make all of my long runs a type of marathon workout.

To put these runs in perspective, the last two weeks I’ve run 19 miles or 2 hours and 12 minutes. At the two-hour mark, I put in a 5 minute effort at about 6:15 per mile, but I’m probably going a bit faster. I jogged for a minute, and then I did four 20-30 second surges. Since I’m very tired at this point, I’ll recruit more muscle fibers making the workout more effective. It will also mentally help me switch into a higher gear when I’m fatigued.

As you can see, these runs are difficult. I’m very tired at the end, especially during hot and humid Washington, DC summers. This makes a structured recovery routine all the more important.

Keep in mind, a good recovery routine is not just for long runs. I wanted to put it in context. Based on the intensity or duration of your own run, you may want to copy this exactly. Feel free to mix and match certain elements to maximize your own recovery.

The Long Run Recovery Routine

Recovery starts before you even take your first step. Start your workout well hydrated and properly fueled. I like to have either coffee or green tea before my long runs; caffeine is a proven performance enhancer and both have a lot of antioxidants.

If it’s hot outside during your run, carry fluids with you to avoid dehydration, especially during a long or particularly intense workout. I actually hate carrying things with me when I run, so I plan to run by water fountains. Do what works for you.

A lot of runners need extra fuel during their workout. Ingesting some calories can help speed the recovery process when you finish as you already have some carbohydrates in your digestive system. I don’t like to eat anything during I run so I avoid this – I’ll only take some gels when prepping for a marathon to get myself used to eating on the run. Again, do what works for you.

When you finish running, the real recovery starts. Here is my routine that I stick to for every long run:

  1. Within 10 minutes of stopping, I make sure to have a lot of protein and simple sugars. I have an iron stomach so I like a glass of chocolate milk with a protein scoop (my favorite running recovery supplement) and a piece of fruit.
  2. Within 30 minutes of finishing, I’ll have at least 3 full glasses of water. This is so important if it’s hot out. I also do 10-15 minutes of light strength exercises and drills – dynamic stretching helps me avoid getting too tight.
  3. Within 45-60 minutes, I have a full meal focusing on protein, low GI (glycemic index) carbs, and healthy fats like olive oil or avocado. I try to eat a lot of veggies in this meal to reduce inflammation and get my vitamins. American record holder in the half-marathoner Ryan hall knows the importance of vegetables for recovery. One of his latest tweets on twitter (@RyanHall3) read “Kale, spinach, ginger, carrot, beet juice to kick off recovery after a HARD 23 miler.” He knows his stuff.
  4. Within 90 minutes, I take a shower, continue drinking water, and start winding down. This is more of a mental recovery period for me.
  5. After 2 hours, I take a 1.5-2 hour nap. Ryan Hall calls his naps “business meetings” because they are part of his job to get faster. This is when your body starts to really repair the damage from your hard workout or long run. Take this seriously!
  6. After the nap, I have some green tea or coffee. Caffeine speeds recovery and both are perfect running recovery drinks.  Next I’ll go for a 10 minute easy walk or do some light drills to loosen up.

You might have noticed that I don’t ice bath. I used to, but I’ve read some recent research that is showing it’s counter-productive. This could be another post entirely, so I’ll keep it brief: you exercise to put stress on your body so that it responds with adaptation. Then you get stronger and faster.

Ice baths reduce that adaptation because they prevent a lot of the muscle damage that’s actually a good thing. When ice baths prevent the damage, they’re also preventing your body from responding to that damage. And then you stay the same speed. Now, who wants that?!

Ice baths are more useful after easy runs or during the taper phase when you’re not trying to gain extra fitness. They can be used for additional recovery when that is your primary concern.

This recovery routine has really worked for me. It’s helped me bounce back from hard workouts and get ready for the next day’s run. I hope it helps you too. But like everything, do what works for you.

What other recovery measures do you take to prevent injury and help your body heal from hard workouts? Let’s hear them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Kaibara87
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