Running is hard. This sport beats athletes up in a way that no other activity does. Due to the pounding that their bodies undergo, runners are always looking for new and better ways to recover. If you ask a group of runners what their recovery strategies are, prepare for a long and bizarre list; beet juice, elk antler, ice, heat, glutamine, protein, spinanch, the list goes on and on.
The question is which tactics actually work? What does science tell us about the effectiveness of these recovery methods?
Studies show that the most effective way to recover is to get enough sleep. How much is enough? Experts say that we should shoot for 7-9 hours a night, but the reality is that the harder you are working the more sleep you need. Many elite athletes sleep up to 10 hours a night, and fit in a mid-day nap between workouts. If you aren’t getting enough sleep then ancillary recovery techniques will have a minimal amount of benefit.
Next on the list of importance is nutrition. For athletes training two to three times per week, following a normal daily nutrition plan with no special additions is sufficient for optimal recovery before the next training session. For athletes training once per day or more often, refueling for the next workout as quickly as possible is crucial. Refueling accurately and consistently after workouts will restore muscle and liver glycogen stores, replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, promote muscle repair and bolster the immune system.There are two post-exercise recovery fueling windows. The first is within 30 minutes of a hard or long training session. The second is in the two to three hours post-exercise.
Fluid, electrolytes, carbohydrates and protein are the foundation of proper recovery nutrition. Immediately on finishing a workout, start replacing fluid and electrolyte losses with a sodium containing drink or water plus sodium containing food.
Continue your recovery nutrition two to three hours post-exercise by eating a whole foods meal. It is OK to eat earlier than this if you are hungry but do not delay this post-exercise meal more than three hours. This meal should contain a combination of carbohydrate, about 20g of protein and some fat.
Ancillary Recovery Strategies
Beyond sleep and nutrition there are a vast amount of recovery techniques that athletes can use, but the reality is that these practices will produce marginal benefits at best.
As muscle cells become adapted to endurance exercise, the number of mitochondria increases. Massage seems to help this process along. Many studies show that massage does in fact increase the rate of recovery. If you can’t afford a massage every day then invest in some self massage tools such as a foam roller or a stick.
While the jury is still out regarding compression socks performance enhancing capabilities, many studies do show that they are beneficial for recovery. Graduated compression socks enhance blood-flow, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen and cytokines that our muscles receive. More oxygen and cytokines for our fatigued legs means shorter recovery times.
The scientific benefits of beet juice revolve around its unique chemical profile. Beet juice is packed with nitrates and your body converts these nitrates to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide widens, relaxes, and dilates blood vessels. Why is this beneficial to a runner? Well, blood vessel dilation increases blood flow capacity leading to more oxygen being transported to your muscles. More oxygen means running faster, higher efficiency and less fatigue.
While there are some skeptics, many studies have shown that beet juice does increase performance and allows athletes to recover better. Though many scientists believe that it is not the nitrates in beet juice that are responsible for the increases in performance.