Stress + rest = growth. That’s the formula for getting better. Most people only focus on the first part and neglect the second part, while some people overemphasize the second part but aren’t doing the day-to-day work they need to do to get better. Hence, recovery can be a very polarizing topic.
What a lot of people focus on today when they talk about recovery: all the ‘tools’ and gadgets they think they need to recover effectively. Cryotherapy chambers, Normatec boots, ice baths, contrast baths, vibrating foam rollers, Theraguns. These things can have a place in your recovery toolbox, but they can only do so much if you’re not aiding your recovery in much larger, more important ways. These things are the so-called ‘2%’ of recovery.
But what is actually going to move the needle the most when it comes to recovery? (AKA, the 98%) Four things: sleep, diet, proper training, and mobility work.
- Sleep – If you were to understand all of the incredible processes your body carries out while you’re sleeping, you would never think of sleep as a ‘luxury’ again. Sleep = work. Sleep = training. This is when your body releases human growth hormones and when your muscles are healed and repaired. If you have a lifestyle that prevents you from getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night (whether you have young kids or a job that forces you to work late), your recovery will be impaired and you should make sure you’re adjusting your training appropriately. See #3.
- Diet – Food = fuel, and food heals. With running, you get what you give. If you’re putting a ton of refined, processed, and nutrient-poor food into your body, OR if you’re undereating and in an energy deficit, your body isn’t going to be able to perform optimally. On this blog I share lots of whole-food, anti-inflammatory recipes that support your training and help your body recover and adapt to training naturally. The body is amazingly sophisticated and complex. It is really terrific at healing itself naturally, IF you give it the tools (sleep + plentiful, varied, and nutritious food) it needs. But shortchange any of these things and watch your recovery become impaired.
- Proper training – Every body is different, and every body responds differently to training. We know this already, right? But how about how everyone’s lifestyle is different? I wish I could record the number of conversations I have with my athletes about why can’t they run x miles per week, or how come they’re not already running 20 milers every weekend? It would at least make people feel less alone and crazy. With the prevalence of social media (and the rise of the ‘Instagram running community’), we’re now getting a ton of data about what everyone from world-record marathoners to sub-3:00 ‘local elites’ are doing on a daily basis. If you want to break 3:00 like the woman you follow on Instagram, shouldn’t you be doing the same training she is? No. Because you don’t know what her ‘behind the scenes’ lifestyle looks like (Instagram doesn’t show everything), or her training history, or injury history. Maybe she’s able to get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, and that’s just not possible for you. Maybe she’s actually training unsustainably and is a month away from a year-long series of stress fractures. You have no idea. Training SMART and in a way that is right for YOU is a huge way we can prevent injury. What does this mean? Taking the proper number of rest days that allow you to recover effectively, building your mileage and intensity gradually, and proactively adjusting the plan when unexpected aches and pains creep up. Most people struggle to do this on their own, which is why hiring a coach can be so helpful.
- Mobility work – Research has shown runners don’t necessarily need to be flexible and loose all the time to run fast and prevent injury. In fact, some stiffness in the muscle actually helps you perform better, and overstretched muscles might be just as prone to injury as overly tight muscles. Therefore, instead of trying to learn the splits or achieve an impressive level of hamstring flexibility, we just want to make sure the muscles have adequate mobility and can go through proper range-of-motion. What impairs mobility and range of motion? Sitting all day. Also spending hours per week moving in the same plane of motion (AKA run training). Also hard workouts – which create adhesions and microscopic tears in your muscles. If you run and then immediately jump in the shower, get in your car, or sit on the couch, you’re letting everything tighten right up. You want to spend at least 5 minutes doing some kind of mobility drills or range-of-motion exercises to jumpstart the natural recovery process and prevent harmful stiffness and tightness from building up.
The ‘extras’ or ‘2%’ — ice baths, epsom salt baths, contrast baths, cryotherapy, compression socks, Normatec boots, and all the recovery gadgets (Theraguns, vibrating foam rollers, Roll Recovery wheels) are AWESOME and great to have. I personally use several of these and have found they work really well for me and many of my athletes. BUT, it’s all about giving them their proper time and place. If you’re religious about your post-workout ice baths but skipping meals or not sleeping, you’re wasting your time. Also, your Normatec boots can help you feel better and maybe less sore from big workouts, but they’re not going to be what gives you the big PR you’re looking for. SMART, hard training does that. And giving your body the ‘big’ tools it needs to recover properly.
Bonus: For those who love their recovery gadgets and are afraid of being sore, there might be such a thing as ‘recovery addiction.’ Steve Magness has wrote about this really well and in-depth. Check out his blog post here.
What are your thoughts on run training and recovery? For those who have been running for a long time, what are the biggest recovery lessons you’ve learned, and what has made the biggest differences for you personally?