UK physiotherapists Six Physio look at the importance of effective recovery for running improvement.
Why is effective recovery important?
Recovery is vital to allow the adaptations of your body to take place and actually improve your fitness. We don’t get fitter or stronger during the training run, we get fitter and stronger when resting after the run. The microtrauma that occurs to the muscles and tendons stimulates further healing and growth and this can only happen if they’re given a chance to rest and recover. Similarly, training aims to improve our nervous system economy and this needs effective nourishment post exercise.
Training programmes that involve running every day are unlikely to get the same results as programs with rest days built in. Recent research has shown that athletes with less than two rest days per week during their training season were five times more likely to get an overuse injury.
What are the time frames for recovery?
Time frames will vary for the individual, dependent on how well they cope with different workouts. However, a general rule would be if you are still feeling DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) on walking, then you are going to struggle to run effectively enough to train properly. Don’t run before you can walk! A bit of cycling or swimming can be a nice way to let your running muscles recover. It is likely that you will only feel DOMS for more than 24 hours if you have really put a big effort in – normally with hill training or heavy interval sessions.
After a big event ... take time out! Rest, hydrate, enjoy yourself and be proud of your achievement! You may get the itch to want to run just 2-3 days later, but I would say don’t!
Recovery after a big event (eg a marathon)
Recovery on the day
• If you’ve completed a significant run, such as a marathon, it is likely that you will feel some degree of muscle soreness. The key is to keep moving! Try to keep walking for 10-15 minutes once you cross the finish line to reduce muscle stiffness.
• Keep well hydrated and eat some form of protein-rich food. This will help flush out the lactic build up and replenish muscle fibres from the microtrauma sustained.
• Wait at least two to six hours after the race before you stretch and foam roll. This allows your muscles time to replenish fluids and energy lost and recover from the demands of the race.
• Static stretching after a long run can always make you ‘feel’ better, but is not essential. Target the main muscles groups - quads, hamstrings, calves, and adductors (groin). At least 30-60 second holds. No more than a few at a time. One long, good hold is better than 10 little ones. Light yoga classes are always a nice addition for post run recovery the next day.
• If you’ve pushed through your threshold and felt some pain, then icing immediately afterwards on the affected area for 10-20 minutes at a time, up to every few hours for 24-48 hours can help give short term relief.
• If you’re feeling brave enough, try an ice bath (mainly for the legs). 10-15 mins can help the body recover from the microtrauma sustained when pushing your threshold.
• The main advice is ... keep moving! Just walking or pottering about after getting out of the shower can help reduce the effects of stiffness the next day.
Day 2: Recovery the day after a big event
• This is key! Inflammation from microtrauma builds overnight. This leads to scar tissue formation and excessive muscle stiffness unless it is eased out. A simple 30 minute light cycle or swim the day after can aid a quicker recovery. Don’t just rest … recover.
• Walking and gentle massage can also help, particularly in the first few days after a marathon.
Days 3-7: The week after a big event
If you felt pain during and after the marathon then it is likely that you have damaged the muscle soft tissue. It is important to know the phases of soft tissue healing process to prevent causing further injury:
Phase 1 - bleeding 0-48 hours
Phase 2 - inflammation up to 5-10 days
Phase 3 - proliferation up to 3-6 weeks
Phase 4 - remodelling up to months/years
• If phase 1 and 2 respond to general PRICE (protection, rest, ice, compression, elevation) treatment and ease pain, then you can return to running within phase 3 and gradually build back up. If this is still pain free then keep going, as phase 4 continues without you knowing about it. However if pain persists 5-10 days after you return to running, then get treatment.
• Build back into running very gently. Once muscle soreness has significantly reduced (usually two to four days after the race), try a short light jog to aid blood flow and ‘feed the need’ for a regular run. Just be mindful to take it easy!
• Listen to your body, allow time for your body to recover before you return to running longer distances and at faster speeds, use this time to cross train as an alternative.
• A sports massage after a long run can also help recovery. However, we’d always recommend at least 24-48 hours between your long run and this to gain the best effects.