The importance of recovery

Close up of an unmade bed overlaid by the Ordinary Runner logo

Stop that, right now

Don’t do it. Don’t go for a run.

That’s right, you heard me. Take those shoes off, pop on your lounging slacks and stay at home.

It’s true that you gain fitness during hard or long runs. But it’s between those runs that your body repairs and strengthens. If there is no “between” there can be no repair. In that case, you’re likely to weaken your body, leading to damage and injury.

Many runners, especially when starting out, aren’t aware of overtraining. That point where too much effort and not enough recovery is detrimental to your mind, body and performance. Anyone training for any sport is susceptible to overtraining, so it’s important to recognise the signs and understand the consequences.

Not too late

The more we run, the better we’re able to interpret what our bodies tell us. How to distinguish between niggle and injury. The effect of poor diet or lack of sleep. And whether we’ve pushed too hard and rested too little.

We’re also blessed with technology that gives insight into the effect of our training, good or bad. Where Strava provides this data to its subscribers, Runalyze offers much more for free. It takes time to interpret the information, but the insights are worth the effort.

However, even if you ignore the signs, physical or digital, all is not lost. There are different types of recovery, each with its own benefits. We’re all unique and we respond uniquely to exercise and recovery. What’s more, our approach should differ according to our training schedule. A half marathon training plan will call for different recovery than a 10k, for example.

Here we explore different types of recovery, plus how, why and when you might use them. Not everything is right for everyone. The best advice is to listen to your body and, if in doubt, consult a professional.

Passive recovery

Red panda sleeping in a tree
Image credit Lance Anderson on Unsplash

Also known as rest. Whether you take the day off after a hard run or take the day off between each run, not-running is important. For most people. Some people manage impressive run streaks that span months or even years (kudos to Ron Hill – what an incredible achievement). If that’s your bag, good for you.

But not everyone has the physiology to run every day. For many, an intense, difficult run is best followed by at least one day without exercise. You won’t lose any fitness and your body will thank you for the chance to recover and strengthen.

If you’re not sure whether to run; listen to your body. Sure, niggles are a near constant to the Ordinary Runner. But if you’re really, really honest with yourself, you’ll know when that niggle needs some recovery time.

Active recovery

Not running

Not running doesn’t have to mean not exercising. Swimming, cycling and strength training are adequate alternatives. Your ideal non-running exercise will differ depending on your training regime and / or the signs telling you to slow down.

Typically, low impact exercises are better – particularly if they use different muscle groups to running. But HIIT training presents an alternative that gets the heart racing while working on other parts of the body.

Not not running

For those who can’t face not running, there’s always running. In fact, the oxymoronic recovery run is an important part of the runner’s recovery plan. As the name suggests, it’s a run that won’t challenge achy muscles. Not too long. Certainly not fast. There’s no room for intervals or fartlek. And, while a gradient may be unavoidable, this isn’t the day for hill repeats.

I recently came across the phrase “dog run” – that aimless, free run without a distance or time target. Ignore the watch (better still, leave it at home) and let your legs lead the way. Go as slow as you need and stop when you’re done. There are few better runs for your mental wellbeing. And you’re aiding your recovery, ready for your next hard session.

Foam rolling and other self-torture methods

Foam rollers

If you’re a runner, there’s a chance you’ve already tried these tubes of agony. The invention of a Ukrainian-Israeli engineer, these hurt vessels have tortured athletes for over 30 years.

Yet, despite being around since Sport Aid Ran the World, they’ve only recently become ubiquitous with post-run pain. Even so, their inexorable rise to popularity means many a self-hating runner will have succumbed in the hope of speedy recovery.

And here’s the thing – they work. Sure, you must fight through the discomfort. But the payoff is worth the agony. And with an embarrassment of rollers on the market, the payout needn’t be unreasonable, either.

Massage guns

The latest weapon in the runner’s recovery arsenal. Where foam rollers have tortured us for too long, massage guns have recently exploded in popularity. So much that Instagram is now peppered with shots of sore muscles being furiously wobbled by these curious weapons.

A massage "gun" with its various attachments
Other massage guns are available. Many, many others.

They deliver rapid bursts of pressure, which pound muscles at an alarming rate. Imagine a chopping-style massage concentrated into a tiny ball and repeated quicker than humanly possible.

The question is, do they actually work?

In a word, yes. They’re no replacement for proper physio, but they do reduce stiffness and aid recovery. After initially dismissing them, I relented when frequent soreness hampered my running. Based on feedback from strangers on the internet, I plumped for this effort from Renpho. So far, it’s worth the money. Not only have my calf issues eased, it also relieves the dreaded D.O.M.S.

And they don’t hurt anywhere near as much as foam rollers.

Polar bear lazing on an ice sheet
Image credit Hans Jurgen on Unsplash

Once upon a time there were ice baths. Runners shivering in a wheelie bin filled with iced water, hoping to drag aching legs back from the brink. It’s believed this method reduces swelling and muscle pain, alongside a host of other boasts. The science doesn’t back the claims. But who’s going to argue with someone willing to stand in freezing water?

As with shoes, smart watches and technical t-shirts, running is rife with innovation. And fads. Cryotherapy may yet turn out to be a stroke of genius or just another short-lived craze. Whatever you believe, don’t rush to your nearest cryosauna straight away. A recent study suggests that cryotherapy could negatively affect muscle function. Not only that, they also dismissed claims of improved performance as no more than a placebo.

Stick with what you know

For now, I’ll stick with rest days, recovery runs and muscle wobbling from my massage gun. I had planned a section on stretching for this post, but I’ve read nothing to back my belief that stretching is good. I’ll sneak it into a post about yoga and Pilates instead – no one seems to argue with the benefits they bring.

What’s your preferred approach to post-run recovery? Have I missed anything obvious? And can anyone point to any proof that stretching is good for us, after all?

Cover image – Madi Doell on Unsplash