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Rethinking Recovery For Runners: Adopting A More Holistic Approach

Being sore after a tough workouts isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Tennessee-based marathoner Margaret Molteni likes to finish off her long runs and track workouts by throwing on a pair of compression socks. The same goes for 40-year-old half marathoner Stephanie Diamond, who sometimes also chases a run with an ibuprofen. Speedy 2:58 marathoner Laura Anderson focuses on sleep, but also incorporates ice baths, foam rolling, and the occasional ibuprofen as well.

All three women are fairly typical of today’s runners—they want to recover quickly from tough efforts in order to reduce soreness and move on to the next workout. Indeed, the $2.3 billion compression sock market is expected to balloon to $3.2 billion by 2020, according to Persistence Market Research. And you don’t have to look far to purchase a foam roller today with everyone from Target to your local running shoe store carrying a full line of options.

While this way of thinking is trendy and well-intentioned, it’s certainly not the only approach. According to one school of thought, letting nature take its course is the way to proceed. In other words, some discomfort is purposeful and eliminating it can defeat the positive gains from training.

“If you artificially protect the body from the damage you incur from your workouts, you dampen its ability to adapt and improve,” says John Davis, author of Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners. Steve Magness, author of The Science of Running and cross-country coach at the University of Houston, agrees. “If you look at how the body works, you realize you need to stress it to where it’s almost embarrassed,” he says. “The stimulus caused by damage allows the body to repair and adapt. This is where it makes its gains.”

Studies on the effects of ibuprofen and acetaminophen post-workout show that the medications inhibit muscle protein synthesis, exactly the opposite of what a runner actually wants. The same holds true for ingesting antioxidants post workout—vitamins E and C shut down adaptation in endurance athletes.

Somewhere along the line, runners have lost their way when it comes to the training and recovery process, says Magness. “The mindset has changed to where runners are focused on recovery and not the work,” he says. “Ask yourself what you are trying to recover from. If it’s a normal workout, let it go.”

That’s not to say recovery doesn’t have its place in a runner’s arsenal—it does. But there are a few different ways to approach it.

Stick to Nature

Switching back to a more traditional mindset might be challenging for today’s runners, but Magness has tips for getting it done.

“Just as you schedule in hard workouts and periodization, you should think about how and when you want to emphasize recovery,” he says.

Early on in your season is the best time to let go of specific recovery efforts and let nature take over, says Magness. “This is when the training emphasis is far more important than feeling good,” he explains.

Davis says you want to achieve the right balance here. Eating well-balanced meals, getting copious amounts of sleep and staying hydrated are key. “Support your body through good nutrition and sleep, but don’t try to shield it with gadgets,” he emphasizes.

Around heavy racing periods, Magness recommends evolving the training/recovery ratio a bit to include some recovery focus, including wearing compression apparel and taking ice baths after harder efforts. “At this stage you’re not as worried about fitness and are getting ready to race,” he says.

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Magness says you do want to recover after races, but you should not reach for a supplement or product as a substitute for natural recovery methods. “Go for an easy cool down run with friends post-race,” he says. “Talk over the race and decompress. You get a boost in testosterone from this effort and that helps your body recover.”

He also recommends giving your body food to help muscle protein synthesis post-race. “This doesn’t have to be complicated, just a good mix of proteins and carbs,” he adds.

If you are really sore, consider jumping in a pool to swim a few laps or just to “splash around,” says Magness, as you’ll help get more pressure from your calf muscles up to your heart, thus kick-starting the recovery process.

No matter what the time of year, Davis points to nature as your best friend. “The further you stray from natural methods of training, the less than ideal your results,” he says.

That’s just what Anderson has learned. As she guns for a PR at Boston, she’ll employ her number one recovery tool: sleep. “Extra sleep has had the biggest impact on my training and racing,” she says. “If I have 10 to 15 minutes at the end of the day, going to bed sooner will always win out.”

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