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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David Csonka

I did a series of deadlifts on Saturday, hill sprints on Sunday… man my legs are STILL sore! I’ll need to make sure I follow some of these guidelines next time. :D

Fitz

Deadlifts and hill sprints are a recipe for soreness! I usually try to have at least a day in between those two (I love both). How many hill sprints are you doing these days?

Clynton Taylor

Great stuff here! I realize I had been doing some of this, but rather irregularly. After starting CrossFit classes and really pushing my body I got incredibly fatigued. My coach told me how important timing a good protein boost after the workout/run was, so I’ve started that. I also have been trying to do a lot of rolling (foam or PVC pipe) for my calves and getting deep tissue massages.

Is there anything in particular you do to stretch or loosen up muscles after a run?

Thanks so much for this – very helpful.

Fitz

Thanks Clynton! After a run, I always do some type of dynamic stretching, light strength work, or core routine. Most of the time I pick between my “ITB Rehab Routine,” “Standard Core Routine,” or Jay Johnson’s “Myrtl Routine.” I talk about all of these here: http://bit.ly/bE2PXY. Thanks for stopping by!

Runners Passion

I’ve never heard that about ice baths stopping the damage and therefore you not getting the full benefit from the run. That’s very interesting and it does seem to make sense. I’d be interested in reading some studies that support this.

Fitz

The research that supports it is just emerging, but here’s one such study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20661161. I think for now, I’ll use ice baths only after easy workouts to enhance recovery, but use more active recovery techniques to enhance adaptation after hard workouts. Thanks for the comment Dan.

Oliver

If ice baths are counter-productive because they stop inflammation (and thereby inhibit adaptation), why would you eat veggies to stop inflammation?

Fitz

Ice baths are the extreme end of the anti-inflammation spectrum. They’re targeted specifically toward your legs (or wherever you’re icing) and is much more targeted. The research that’s coming out is focused solely on ice therapy and it looks like the reason for its negative affect on adaptation is because it reduces blood flow; vegetables don’t reduce blood flow. Their antioxidants reduce inflammation from within the body and don’t don’t act on a particular spot (i.e., not localized).

This is a really fascinating area of recovery for me personally so as I continue to learn I’ll post more and keep everyone updated.

Ron

Thanks for the great advice, Fitz. These parameters are pretty easy to follow. After a gym run, I’ll do some stretches, then drink a serving of Gatorade Recovery (with whey) and some water before heading home. I always eat a lot of fresh veg & fruit so that part’s easy.
What’s not so easy is doing this stuff after a race. Unlikely to get veg in the post race food and sometimes not even protein. Usually, it’s a long way from home for me, too. I’ve been bringing the Recovery drink with me just in case. What I found after a tough race was that I couldn’t do any stretches without setting off leg cramps or short spasms. Best I can do is some walking around post race. Maybe elevate my feet if I think of it.

Fitz

No problem Ron, thanks for the comment. I think you have a good strategy. For recovering well after a race I try to stick to these basics as well. Bringing in the right food and finding space to do some light flexibility drills afterward is a must – you’ll feel a lot better!

Jessica

I’m a sophomore in high school and just joined track. Before this, I had never run more than a mile, and that was probably two years ago. (I don’t take PE.) I’m pretty lean, but I’m really out of shape. I’ve always hated running. Do you have any tips about how to get better at running distance? I always get much too fatigued after about a mile.

Jason

Hey Jessica! I’d talk to your coach. She’s the one designing your training and the best person to help you right now. There are a lot of articles here that you can read to help, but ultimately you have to run under your coach. Good luck!

Jason

Jessica I despised running, never understood why people didn’t die of boredom doing it. For me the key was

1. running with friends, to encourage you and make it fun
2. using an app like Map My Run to track progress and get a feeling of accomplishment
3. running at a conversational pace, that is a pace at which you can still talk without gasping for breath (I used to run myself to exhaustion, and then wondered why I didn’t like it!).

That is only my personal experience, but I’ve heard so many people say they don’t like running because it’s hard and painful. It doesn’t need to be, at least when you’re just starting out.

Jeff

I used to marathon 30 years ago when I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. For the past year I have been getting back into marathon training. I follow a similar program I used while training 30 years ago. I typically run 6 days a week, rotate hard/easy days with a long run on Sat. I increase miles 10% weekly until I reach a top end of 60 miles. I recall my progress being different 30 years ago, which is to be expected. I have been trying to find something that would aid in recovery and enhance endurance so your article was of interest to me. Beside a huge injection of testosterone and a time machine, is there something you would recommend for the older runner to optimize recovery and enhance peak performance?

Jason Fitzgerald

Hey Jeff, generally you’ll want to prioritize quality running (faster workouts) and increase recovery time between those workouts. So while you may have been able to do a hard workout every other day, you may need two days of recovery now. A lower overall volume and less intense workouts may also be needed. Good luck and welcome back to the marathon :)

Ronnicky

I looked up quicker healing methods online today, about 30 minutes after my workout.
When I noticed it was on a schedule, I popped straight up and started doing it while using my watch and galaxy s3 for a reference…I woke up from my nap about 25 – 30 minutes ago.
I feel amazing. Seriously, the moment I woke up I moved my quads through ROM, with 0 soreness lol.
This is amazing and I’m glad this was the first page I happened upon when looking : D

Cabe

Good luck with the eating and napping schedule with a screaming new born and a wife who is at wit’s end. I am lucky if I have time to get my workouts done. The good news…our agency just approved 2.5 hours per week of work time for PT if we contribute 2.5 hours of personal time for PT. That will help immensely!

Franzi

Thanks for this Jason. Very helpful. What about stretching as in hamstrings, legs, back etc. I like your strength routines, your ITB routine really helped me get back from my ITB injury, but cannot get a real clear picture on the value of traditional stretching routines. Whats your take on that?

Jason Fitzgerald

Hey Franzi – I’ll assume you mean static stretching, which is fine after your workout is done. If you enjoy it and believe it helps, then keep doing it after you run and do your core/strength/dynamic flexibility routine. I’d also look into AIS (more on that here: http://strengthrunning.com/2013/04/active-isolated-flexibility-for-runners/)

Jason

Franzi I had read some reports that indicated static stretching prior to a workout actually resulted in decreased performance. The theory was that it reduced elasticity and “springback” in the connective tissue. Dynamic stretching, in contrast, appropriately warmed up muscle groups and got blood flowing.

As someone who played a lot of sports, ie. soccer, I found this counterintuitive at first. But static stretching in sports where there is a lot of sudden directional change and bursts of speed benefits from static stretching – you don’t want to pull a quad while sprinting or ruin your ankle when you make a hard cut. You simply don’t put that kind of strain on your body when running.

Mario

i do take a little alcohol before going for my runs. Is it okay?

Jason

Great tips, thx Jason.

I do wonder about recommending chocolate milk. You do qualify it by saying its for people with an “iron stomach”, but with its high refined sugars and acidic properties I would urge people to try different options. Your vegetable suggestions I think are far more crucial. I usually make a smoothie with protein powder, 1/2 banana, 1/2 avocado, unsweetened plain yogurt, a handful of carrots, blueberries, grapes, coconut milk, and OJ. I always feel great eating that, without the heavy “milky” feeling or the sugar rush.

Diet is SO critical. I would urge anyone serious about their health to consider eating “clean” on a trial basis to see what it does for your performance. It was life changing for me, and I thought I hate healthy before.

Russell E. Willis

Eating fish is a great way for you to fuel your body when you are trying to build muscle. The fish contains omega-3. Omega-3s help the muscle to be increasingly sensitive to insulin, which will help to fuel the storage of amino acids, and glycogen that is stored in muscles.

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