Why enhance recovery when you can reduce the need to recover?

Every runner knows that post-run recovery is important. Your body needs to reverse the dehydration, muscle fuel depletion, muscle tissue disruption, and other effects of exercise stress to get ready to perform well in the next workout.

When runners think about recovery, they usually take the dehydration, muscle fuel depletion, muscle tissue disruption, and other effects of exercise stress as given—as unavoidable. Consequently, they seek to boost their performance in the next workout by doing everything they can to reverse these effects once they’ve already happened (by taking ice baths, drinking protein shakes, etc.). The idea that they could also boost their performance in the next run by minimizing the need for recovery in the first place does not cross their mind. However, this is possible.

Obviously, the easiest way to minimize the need for recovery after a run is to avoid running hard. If you replace a hard 10-mile run with a slow one-mile run, you will recover much faster. But if you do this every day, you won’t get very fit. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about measures you can take to minimize the stress effects of the hard training you’re already doing.

One simple thing you can do to reduce the muscle damage caused by a hard run and thereby bounce back quicker is warm up. Studies have shown that runners exhibit less muscle damage and report less muscle soreness 24 hours after a hard run when it is preceded by a thorough, gentle warmup. A proper warmup before hard running appears to increase the elasticity of muscle fibers so that they are less likely to rupture under the stress of intense exercise.

RELATED: What’s the real benefit of recovery runs?

A nutritional measure that has been shown to reduce muscle damage during exercise is consuming carbohydrate and protein together while working out. For example, in a 2006 study, researchers at James Madison found that cyclists suffered significantly less muscle damage during a hard ride when they drank a carbohydrate-protein sports drink than when they drank a carbohydrate sports drink with equal calories. Significantly, the cyclists were also able to perform significantly more leg extensions the day after the hard ride with the carb-protein drink. This finding provides the purest possible indication that the consumption of carbohydrate and protein together during the workout reduced the loss of functional capacity resulting from the workout.

The average runner generally thinks of recovery in terms of the physiological processes of muscle damage repair, muscle refueling, and so forth. But it’s performance that really matters. If you can’t perform as well the next day, then you haven’t recovered, regardless of how much muscle repair and refueling has transpired since you’re last workout. This is why preventing the loss of functional capacity resulting from workouts is so powerful. Instead of enhancing recovery you’re reducing the need for recovery.

There’s another item to add to the list of measures that can be used to reduce the need for recovery. Researchers at Massey University in Australia studied the effects of graduated compression socks on running performance and post-run muscle function. Twelve runners ran four 10K time trials on a track on separate occasions while wearing three varieties of compression socks (one at a time, naturally) and without compression socks. The researchers found that the compression socks had no effect on their 10K times.

RELATED: Do compression socks really work?

However, the runners did experience a smaller decline in jumping performance after the time trials when they wore the compression socks. This finding suggests that the runners would be able to perform better in their next run and thus get more benefit from that next run. Extrapolating, runners who wore compression socks every day might indeed improve their 10K times more than they would if they trained without compression socks.

In other words, compression socks might not improve your 10K time today, but it just might improve it in six weeks!


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Iron War: Dave ScottMark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.