Never underestimate the importance of recovery. Recovery is when you get stronger. It’s what prevents overtraining and overuse injuries. It allows you to train hard afterwards. Without an adequate recovery strategy, the best you can hope for is getting more and more tired.
Strategy? Doesn’t recovery just mean not running? It can, but there are more effective ways to go about it. We’re going to look at recovery nutrition, which you should consider after any moderate to hard run. And then we’ll look at active recovery, which is usually reserved for days after races or after your hardest training sessions.
Hard runs deplete your stored carbohydrates. These take the form of glycogen, which is a sugar stored in your muscles and liver. Without these reserves, you’re incapable of shorter, more intense efforts, like powering over a short hill. And your brain function will be impaired. If you’ve ever reached a point during a long run when suddenly everything felt harder, both physically and mentally, you know what it’s like to run out of stored carbs. Athletes colorfully call this “hitting the wall.” Ways to avoid this wall include adequate pre-run nutrition, adequate nutrition during the run (if it will last 90 minutes or longer), and adequate recovery nutrition.
The ideal post run recovery food includes water for hydration, carbohydrates to replenish your stores, protein to speed muscle regeneration, and some electrolytes to make up for minerals you’ve sweated out. There are plenty of commercial sports drinks that will accomplish all these functions. You can also just make a fruit smoothie. Make it with milk, or add 10 grams or so of protein powder.
If you don’t have access to a blender or juice bar or recovery concoctions, then just focus on the basics: water and carbs. Believe it or not, a sugary soft drink is actually pretty good for this purpose. Most of the time, these drinks earn their terrible reputations, but in the hoursimmediately following hard exercise, your body responds differently to sugar. Your insulin response will be tuned to efficiently turn sugar into muscle glycogen. This means that both your blood sugar and insulin levels are likely to stay stable even after you guzzle an extra-large cola. Drinks with this high a sugar concentration often cause stomach upset if you drink them during hard exercise, but they usually go down fine afterwards.
The day after a race or hard training run, you’ll help your body recover by engaging in some low-intensity, low-impact exercise. It’s better to get your blood flowing and your joints moving than to spend the day in bed. How much exercise is ideal, and how many recovery days you need, will depend on your how hard you pushed yourself. The average recreational runner will barely be able to walk the day after a marathon. A world-class ultra-runner might barely feel sore. Our recommendations should be accurate for a typical recreational runner. If you’re a complete beginner, you may need more recovery. If you’re advanced, you may need less.
Recovering From a 10K or 15K Race
Consider an hour of cycling, walking or swimming or an easy 20- or 30-minute run the next day. This will get your blood flowing to speed recovery, and will help keep you from stiffening up. Depending on your body’s recovery rate, you may be able to start training again after a single recovery day, or you may need two or three days.
Recovering From a Marathon
Unless you’re a seasoned ultra runner, you’re likely to feel wrecked the next day. It’s likely that a half hour or hour of walking is all you’ll manage. This is a great way to begin recovery. Over the next couple of weeks, gradually increase your activity, including longer walks, bike rides, swims, and easy hikes. After three weeks, try easing into shorter runs. Respect any signals your body sends you—including joint pain or extreme fatigue. After four weeks, you can start ramping up running distance and intensity.
Recovering From a Trail Race
The biggest consideration with trail races is the likelihood of rough terrain and steep hills. The downhills especially give your muscles and joints a beating. So you may feel sore and tired beyond what you’d expect based just on the mileage.
Be sure to give yourself adequate recovery days without any impact until your body tells you it’s ok to ease into running again.
Be diligent with your recovery. Recovery days aren’t sick days or days off—they’re a necessary and active part of the training process. Try to learn to enjoy the break from your usual intensity, and please, fight any temptation to cut corners.