Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Let's face it...running is an extremely high impact sport. It causes significant stress on your body which can lead to all kinds of injuries.
While it is important to focus on reaching your running goals like distance, pace, or overall time...I think it's even more important to focus on not getting injured! If you can't run you can forget about hitting a personal best!
I've been injured enough to become very familiar with how the injury process usually goes. For most of us it looks something like this...
You feel great, you're making progress and crushing your runs!
You start to feel a slight pain in one area of your body every now and then, you continue to run hoping it will go away on its own.
You feel that pain more frequently, but it doesn't hurt that bad, so you continue to run.
The pain is more frequent and starting to become more intense, so you dial back your running a little bit hoping it will go away.
The pain is intense and constant. You finally stop running completely, you think "it will probably go away in a couple days...maybe a week."
The pain dies down because you aren't running so you think it's gone. You go for a run only to find that the pain is still there and worse than ever.
You decide to see your doctor. They tell you that you have "X" overuse injury and you need to stop running for at least 6-8 weeks.
You're devastated so you binge watch Netflix and eat your weight in ice cream
Now you're stuck for the next 6-8 weeks thinking about how you could have prevented this from happening.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you can prevent all of your injuries by following this simple stretching routine. It doesn't work like that.
Recovery is complex and includes so many different factors it can seem impossible to master. And honestly...it might be. Even the professionals argue about what is most effective!
With that being said, some awesome research has been published about the science of recovery discussing things that definitely work...probably work...might work...and DON'T work!
Let's dive into the world of recovery to discuss what's important and what you can throw out the window...
If you've been paying attention to fitness guru's, sports professionals, medical professionals or social media influencers (barf) you're probably familiar with the enormous numbers of products, techniques, and massage practices used to help "recover" from workouts.
The vast majority of these are unsubstantiated and the only reason you're seeing them is because someone is trying to make that money!
Things like cupping therapy, scraping therapy, juice cleanses, supplements, or "muscle stimulators" all generally have very little, if any, research to prove that they actually work. But you'll see ads, articles, pictures and social media posts about them all over the place!
That's because people are desperate to find a way to build more muscle or lose more weight, and they are looking for an easy way to do it.
The truth is that there is no easy way. There is only working hard and working smart, consistently.
The consistent part is where recovery comes in.
Crushing a workout is great but the only way that you get stronger, maintain weight loss, or improve at your sport is by crushing those workouts over and over and over. It's pretty hard to do that with an injury!
That's why I think that recovery is one of the most important aspects of running.
How to recover from running
Just a quick reminder: I'm not a medical professional nor am I formally trained in any of the following disciplines. This is my personal opinion. Contact a medical professional when starting a new diet or workout program.
Nutrition is how you fuel your body with the calories and nutrients it needs to achieve your goals. Different goals require different nutritional strategies.
If your goal is to lose weight you need to make sure you are in a moderate caloric deficit. A big mistake that I often see in overweight runners is trying to maintain a huge caloric deficit even on their running days.
These types of plans suck for a number of reasons:
First, it's just not good for you body to be surviving on a massive caloric deficit. It causes stress in your body which can be counter-productive for weight loss.
Second, if you are running you need to fuel your body properly or you won't be able to recover from intense workouts. You have to make sure that your body has the right amount of calories and nutrients to be able to take advantage of the work you're putting in on your runs.
Third, consistency. The vast majority of people who try to stick to an extremely low calorie diet can't maintain it. Don't think of nutrition as a "diet" that you need to stick to right now...think of it as a lifestyle choice that you've made for the long haul. Any time I change my eating habits (I went vegetarian about a year ago) I ask myself "Can I do this for the rest of my life?". If the answer is no, I adjust.
But nutrition is not all about weight loss or weight gain. It is one of the best ways you can have an immediate and lasting impact on your body. Balancing the right amount of macro and micro nutrients can have amazing effects on how you feel and how well your body can recover.
As you research this topic you'll surely come across a dozen specific diets that elite runners use...high fat, high carb, keto, paleo, vegan, etc. Just remember that everyone is different. What works really well for one person may not be the best plan for you.
What I've found works for me is being intentional about what I put in my body. No, I'm not super strict with my diet; I still have whiskey every once in a while, I still eat junk every now and then, and I still go out to restaurants.
But I also keep track of what I'm eating, I know roughly how many carbs to eat on a run day, I know what foods are going to be better for recovery and I know which foods to avoid!
All of this takes time to dial in, so don't feel overwhelmed if you don't get it right in a month.
There is an amazing amount of research to show how important sleep is for you. It reduces stress, improve cognitive function, and yes, it can improve athletic performance.
We all kind of know this in the back of our minds. I mean, we feel like crap when we stay up late and have to get up for work the next day. And we are generally in a better mood and have more energy when we get that rare night of 9 hours of sleep!
Like everything on this list, the number of hours of sleep you need per night is going to vary based on lots of things. The general recommendation is 7-9 hours of sleep but you might be fine with 6 hours every night, or you may feel like you feel your best with 9-10 hours.
When you are asleep your body does its best healing and as we know, healing is when our body is building muscle and recovering from stress.
It's no wonder why professional athletes focus so much on getting enough sleep. Whether they are getting lots of sleep at night or squeezing in naps during the day, the pro's know the importance of getting plenty of shut eye!
Personally, I like getting a lot of sleep. I'm not one of those people who do well on 6-7 hours. Sure I can manage for a day or two, but I generally feel pretty miserable and start getting a little loopy at the end of the day.
When I have a race or a big run I always try to get a lot of sleep for the week leading up to it. It's not always easy (especially with young kids!) but I try to make it a priority because I know how important it is.
Likewise, after a big run I'm pretty much always in bed by 9 pm, no matter how much my wife makes fun of me!
Alright, so prehab is a pretty general term that might mean much to you at first glance...but we're going to get into the details in a minute!
Rehabilitation (rehab) is what you do after you've had an injury, surgery, or other change to your body that requires you to work on regaining function of that area. For example: If you tear your ACL and need surgery to fix it, you will probably be looking at several months of rehab to be able to get back to using that knee like you used to.
When rehab'ing you are generally working on mobility, flexibility, strength, and the mechanics of the joint.
Prehab is basically using these principles to try to prevent injuries from ever occurring, proactively trying to keep your body healthy.
Stretching, massage, foam rolling, mobility work, and many other techniques are used to prevent injury.
Sometimes these preventative measures work and sometimes they don't. This is not a foolproof method of staying healthy, so don't let that be your takeaway here.
I'm big into stretching and feel like my body is working at its best when I've been taking the time to stretch every evening and before my runs. I know that the science is still out on stretching but I feel better when I do and notice less nagging pains and muscle strains.
I also foam roll almost every night. This is...not fun. Rolling your muscles is pretty painful and for me it can be uncomfortable having to support the rest of my body while rolling my legs. But there is evidence to suggest foam rolling can decrease muscle soreness and increase flexibility, so I'm sticking to the routine!
There are almost an infinite number of ways to exercise, and who's to say which one is the best! You just gotta find something you enjoy and stick to it!
But "sticking to it" doesn't mean you can't try other activities as well. In fact, cross training can be incredibly beneficial for those of us who mainly focus on one sport, like running!
Cross training can help build muscles that may be neglected by your "main" sport. It can also provide a new physical stimulus which can intensify the aerobic and muscular benefits. As runners, cross training can also provide us with a lower impact workout that will give our joints a bit of a break!
Most runners have gotten to the point where there bodies just kind of ache. Your legs are hurting, your back aches, your shoulders and traps are sore and you just feel like a giant bruise.
Constantly focusing on a high impact sport like running can do that to you, especially if you're not being diligent about taking care of your body with the other recovery tools we've talk about in this article!
One of the ways I try to stave off this "giant bruise" feeling is by incorporating some cross training into my work out regimen.
If you've seen my homepage you'll see some pictures of me swimming, biking and running. That's because about a year ago a did a half-ironman triathlon. That's a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run!
Yes, it was brutal. Yes, training for it was brutal. Yes, I was ecstatic when it was over!
But what I did come to realize during my training was that my body wasn't burning out the way it did when I had focused solely on running. Mixing swimming and biking sessions into my week had given my legs a break from constantly pounding pavement.
Now, I regularly try to incorporate swimming or biking into my workout plans.
Scheduling rest periods can sometimes feel like we are cheating ourselves or being too weak to push through the pain of training. The reality is that pushing through pain is one of the best ways to injure yourself, and if we can take one thing away from this article it should be that we should focus on not getting injured above all else!
Rest periods can be a single day, a week, or more; it just some amount of time where you intentionally scale back your workouts, or don't workout at all.
Lots of people think that there needs to be a special event to warrant a rest day. Tapering before a race, recovering after a race, or trying to deal with an injury.
The truth is that good workout plans include rest periods every week, and can include significant rest periods every 3-5 weeks depending on your weekly mileage.
The reason that you should be scheduling rest days into your weekly schedule is pretty obvious...your body needs time to recover! Giving it 12-18 hours between workouts just isn't enough. You're more likely to get injured if you're not getting enough rest, and your performance in your workouts is definitely suffering.
When you schedule your rest days remember this...rest does not mean you sit on a couch all day and eat like crap. This isn't a "cheat day" where you forget everything you learned about recovery. This is a day to let your body recharge from all the work it has been doing.
Your rest day could include a light bike ride for 20-30 minutes and a light stretch at night. It could be a short shakeout jog. It could include a yoga class. It could be a day where you actually do nothing! The point of your rest day is to give your body and your mind a break from running.
Longer rest periods, like a rest week, are also important when you've been focusing on really pushing your pace or distances over the past few weeks. Your body can continue to adapt to these new workouts even while your resting, so it's in your best interest to work hard and rest hard when your schedule calls for it.
Again, you don't have to do absolutely nothing for a week. It might be beneficial to a few shakeout runs, get in some yoga classes, stretch, or do something else that will increase blood flow and maintain flexibility.
On rest days I generally like to a get in a short, easy swim because it allows me to increase blood circulation, get a full body stretch, and clear my mind for a bit. I keep the pace painfully slow so I know I'm not working too hard to get the benefits of my rest day.
For rest weeks, I always incorporate at least 2 days of doing nothing (except stretching) as well as 4-5 days of very easy workouts. This includes things like yoga classes, easy mountain bike rides, walks, shakeout jogs, or swims.
I hope that this article has been helpful and that you've been able to take something away from it that might help you along your running journey.
But more than any technique or specific tip, I genuinely hope you adopt the mentality that we, as runners, need to be more focused on injury prevention than almost anything else.
No single run, race, or event is important enough to take away your relationship with running. I know because I've done it more times than I can count. Pulled muscles trying to hit a personal best on race day. IT band syndrome training for a distance that's out of my reach. Or just debilitating pain from trying to increase my weekly mileage too much too fast.
Focusing on the numbers instead of what your body is telling you will fail 9 times out of 10. In order to be successful we need to start focusing on being consistent with our running and that means being consistent with our recovery!
As always, thank you so much for reading!
What did you think of the article? Were there any major aspects of recovery that I didn't cover?
What are the most important aspects of recovery for you? Stretching, acupuncture, massage, diet?
Leave a comment below and share this article with any of your running friends who need a friendly reminder that they aren't 19 anymore!