Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Erin Strout
It’s after 10 p.m. on a Thursday in a midtown Manhattan hotel, where a bunch of the world’s fastest runners have descended for the 2013 New York City Marathon. In the middle of the ninth-floor hallway is a shadowy figure lying on the floor. It’s not the beginning of a bad horror movie. It’s an elite athlete, fresh off a day of airplane travel, working out the kinks with a foam roller and stretching rope before bedtime.
Chelsea Reilly, a Bay Area professional runner who was in New York that November weekend to compete in the Dash to the Finish Line 5K, didn’t have enough space in her room to tend to the recovery routine she practices every day. Rolling out her hips, glutes, calves and quads is as much a part of the schedule as brushing her teeth. Without 10 minutes of active isolated stretching, Reilly, who is the 2013 U.S. indoor 3K champion, says her day is not complete, and she feels less ready to run the next morning’s workout.
“I don’t go anywhere, really, without my stretching rope,” Reilly says. It takes attention to the details to maintain health over long periods of intense training. Getting to all the starting lines throughout the year requires athletes to not only run at high volume and high intensity for weeks at a time, but to also recover enough from those hard efforts to be able to do it again day after day. Recovery strategies, then, play just as critical a role in performance as nailing key workouts. But how and when to recover is as individual as training itself. Ice baths, massage, foam rollers and stretching work for some runners, but are they as essential for others? What habits will truly help an athlete remain healthy and ready for more?
And what exactly does recovery mean, anyway?
“The simplest definition is the act or process of returning toward normal,” says Trent Stellingwerff, the research and physiology leader at the Canadian Sport Institute. “It can happen in terms of seconds–like the recovery between intervals on the track–hours or days. It can be weeks or months.”
Recovery is the restoration of energy-producing enzymes inside the muscles, functional proteins, fat and carbohydrate stores, and the regeneration of the endocrine and immune systems, Stellingwerff says. Recovery comes down to repairing, resting and refueling–while still allowing the body to adapt to the training workload and reap fitness gains.
So the seconds, hours and days between all those bouts of running matter. A body at rest, in the runner’s life anyway, doesn’t stay at rest. If you’re recovering well, the body bounces back and is ready for more.
“My recovery starts even before the workout,” Reilly says. “I get a lot of sleep, I pay attention to hydration, I eat a quality breakfast, I do my active isolated stretching routine, and I make sure to eat during the workout itself–all to speed recovery afterward.”
All Recovery Is Not Equal
Stellingwerff, who works with Canadian Olympic and national-class runners, says every training stimulus requires a different recovery strategy. It depends on how much an athlete is training and whether the goal is for muscle adaptations to occur or if it’s time to throw the “kitchen sink” of recovery aids at the runner, like between rounds during track competitions. In other words, runners should periodize their recovery in much the same fashion as they periodize their training.
“Think about a glass of water, and the water level represents stress level,” he says. “If the water level is at the rim, any little additional thing will make it spill over, and the stress is overflowing. During a training camp, for example, you want the stress at the brim, but you don’t want it to overflow.”
Coaches and therapists advise their high-level athletes to figure out which types of recovery techniques are effective. During heavy training, when a runner is not only logging high mileage but including high intensity, too, it’s normal to feel fatigue and soreness–that’s how the muscles are adapting to the workload. Interfering too much can reduce the fitness gains. As runners get closer to competition, they aren’t as concerned about losing those adaptations. Instead, it’s time to focus on feeling fresh and race-ready, using all the tricks and tools necessary to get there.
But It’s Not All Black and White
“It’s a delicate balance,” Stellingwerff says. “If a marathon runner is in a hard week and reaching the upper limits of soreness, it’s OK to use a cold tub to help her complete the mileage. You need to consider the context–there are times when using an ice bath, for example, may be of more benefit to performance than losing the adaptations.”
Essentially, runners don’t always need to feel good; there are times when they just need to feel good enough.
David McHenry, physical therapist for the Nike Oregon Project, says the likes of Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein rely on years of trial and error that guide them in deciding the timing and level of massage, hydration, sleep and nutrition they need at all points of their training and racing. Of course, these athletes also have a plethora of cutting-edge tools at their fingertips that the rest of us do not, like the ever-famous cryosauna that followed Ritzenhein to the 2010 New York City Marathon.
McHenry maintains, however, that it doesn’t need to be so complicated. While the Oregon Project athletes get 60–90 minutes of full-body massage twice a week, his advice to the rest of the running population is less time-consuming: foam roll, every day.
“Foam rolling is huge. It’s a more powerful recovery tool than stretching,” he says. “It helps you push the metabolic waste, it promotes circulation and it’s a lot cheaper than having a massage every week. The more you foam roll, the less you’ll need to see physical therapists like me.”
Go to Bed
Even more accessible to runners the world over is the one strategy that all experts, athletes and coaches agree is the biggest factor in recovery and athletic performance: sleep. “There’s no doubt in my mind that probably 90 to 95 percent of all recovery can be achieved by proper sleep and nutrition,” Stellingwerff says. “Your sleep quality can improve your performance.”
McHenry concurs. The Oregon Project athletes typically get 10–12 hours of sleep per night, as well as another hour nap most days. When they get that shut-eye is up to them, but McHenry says some go to sleep later and wake up later, while others prefer an early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule. The key is to be consistent about the time they go to bed and wake up.
“You have to allow for individuality,” he says, “but we recommend 10 to 12 hours of sleep and tell them to get it done.”
For good reason. Researchers at Stanford University continue studying the impact of sleep on athletic performance–research that has been ongoing since 2002. The study began with Stanford swimmers, who started setting personal records when they scheduled more sleep time. Then the men’s basketball team showed improvements in reaction time, free throws, 3-point shots and sprint times, leading the researchers to conclude that sleep duration was an important component of peak performance.
Magdalena Lewy Boulet, an Olympic marathoner who recently took second place in her first ultra at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler, says that back when she was competing on the roads, she’d notice a huge difference during the weeks she was able to fit in naps consistently.
“When I was running full time, I made room for it on my schedule, especially on hard workout days and between doubles,” she says. “It drastically improved my training–even just an hour helps. Now, on weekends, I try to indulge after long runs.”
Scientists agree that runners need to log sufficient time at the third and fourth stages of the sleep cycle–that’s when the human growth hormone is released, which helps build and repair tissues. Without enough sleep, the body may produce more cortisol, which interferes with tissue repair. Lack of adequate sleep can also mess with metabolism, leaving runners without adequate glucose stores to fuel long efforts.
Reid Coolsaet, a Canadian 2:10 marathoner, says he definitely sees sleep as “the biggest bang for the buck” in his arsenal of recovery methods. He aims for nine hours per night and an hour nap during the day, but admits, “I really only nap when I’m at 110 miles a week or more; otherwise I’m just not tired during the day.”
Coolsaet also notices that it’s easier to sleep in during the fall and harder in the summer, because of the daylight. Researchers suggest that it’s easier to change a bedtime than a wake time and recommend moving back the bedtime gradually over a few days to increase sleep duration. They also say that good “sleep hygiene” makes a difference, so creating a routine helps. Cheri Mah, one of the Stanford researchers, offers a few tips:
- Make the bedroom dark, quiet and cool. (Don’t take those post-long-run naps inadvertently dozing on the couch in front of the TV.)
- Maintain a consistent schedule, waking up and going to sleep at the same times.
- Establish a pre-bed routine to wind down, such as stretching, reading or listening to music 30 minutes before lights out.
- Reduce hydration two hours before bed.
Reilly, who is coached by Lewy Boulet, says she experiences a higher injury rate when she doesn’t get enough sleep. “It’s the most underrated performance enhancer there is,” she says. “I plan my sleep like I plan a workout–when you see recovery as part of the process, you make all of it a priority.”