Just as a training plan has helped you run your race, so an equally well thought-out recovery plan should ease you through its aftermath. Spoiler alert: there’s more to this plan than collapsing on the sofa and calling the emergency pizza delivery service.
‘Active recovery,’ says Dearbhla Gallagher, rehabilitation therapist at The St Mary’s Clinic, London (www.smuc. ac.uk) ‘means having a plan to assist your body to get back to its regular state, and not just treating recovery as an afterthought.
‘If you’ve run a hilly course, or you’ve really pushed yourself through those miles, you’ve put quite a strain on your body.
‘As practitioners we’ve studied the dramatic changes in terms of the blood, endocrine and muscle systems after the body has completed a hard race,’ explains Gallagher.
Most runners aren’t subjected to the blood tests and physiological performance studies that Gallagher’s elite athletes undergo to monitor recovery, so we don’t realise the amount of effort our bodies put into reparation after a race. Eliminating toxins, regulating the heart rate and temperature back to normal, mending micro damage to muscles, all these essential repairs have to be done. We’re not helping them with a perfunctory stretch, a totter to the car, a quick shower, then a protracted period on the sofa.
Like many physiologists, Gallagher winces when people like me bang on about lactic acid as if we know what it means, but she agrees that mobilisation of the muscle groups after the race is wise. ‘Basically it’s about helping blood flow,
and helping move toxins out of your body,’ she says. So walking around and keeping a full range of movement is good recovery practice.
‘Some events offer post-race massages. These can be good because they’re designed specifically to help blood flow; they’re not hard, deep massages, which would not be recommended.’
DRINK, EAT, BE MERRY
Gallagher also recommends you help your body’s healing by striding purposefully toward the refreshments. ‘You have to rehydrate and refuel. How much you need depends on your fitness and your body mass, but the idea of that 30-minute window during which you replace the depleted nutrients in your body has good evidence behind it,’ states Gallagher.
‘You’ll need water or an electrolyte drink. Calculate how much liquid you need to replace, either by checking the colour of your urine (make sure it resembles pale straw) or weighing yourself before and after the event.
‘A banana and some yogurt is a great mix of protein, fat and carbohydrate for a post-run snack.’ And, give some thought to dinner time, says Laura Clark, registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at LEC Nutrition (www.lecnutriton.co.uk).
‘Eating a balanced meal after your run aids recovery. Some lean protein (oily fish is particularly good because of the fatty acids) and a range of vegetables and carbs will replenish your body’s stores and prepare it for the next challenge.’
Your immune system has taken a knock and needs a full range of nutrients to keep going strong. Try to avoid the faddy factor, unless certain food groups actually make you ill.
‘Some people are tempted to cut out whole food groups because they think it will improve performance, but for recovery you need the food groups that it is often fashionable to cut out, especially dairy,’ Laura says.
ENERGY TWEAKS: HOW TO BOOST YOUR RECOVERY
■ Stick to a recovery plan and don’t cut corners with nutrition, or decide that sedentary is the best policy for the body’s repair.
■ Weigh up your hydration. Laura Clark recommends checking your weight before and after a run, and drinking to replace the weight lost.
■ Consider massage. A gentle one, post race, is fine, but a slightly deeper massage a few days afterwards is even better for your muscles.
■ Try wearing compression tights after a run. There’s some evidence that compression may reduce exercise- induced muscle damage.
In this recuperative period you gradually bring those stretched and inflamed muscles into their normal working state. The discomfort of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be alleviated by judicious active recovery.
Ellie Brown, running coach and founder of Greenwich Pilates (www.greenwichpilates. co.uk) says it’s about recovering the ease of movement by putting in time on the foam roller and the yoga mat, while keeping up the gentle mobilisation of the joints.
‘Gently work your lower back and thoracic spine by performing cat stretches, downward dogs and spine curls on the mat. With the roller or spiky ball you can lie on your side and use your body weight to apply pressure to your hip flexors and glutes. You are trying to minimise the impact on the body, while improving the circulation of fresh blood to the muscles. Lying lengthways on the roller and performing big arm circles is also a great recovery move.
‘No heavy weights or painful workouts are needed, just easing into the movements. You want to be able to start running again as soon as it feels right. If you dive straight back into running without a sustained active recovery period, you risk injury,’ advises Ellie.
TRAINING TWEAKS: HOW TO TRAIN FOR RECOVERY
■ Learn good core moves and stretches. Invest in a foam roller or spiky ball for self massage.
■ Move back into running gradually: running hard on unrecovered, sore muscles is a recipe for injury, which will really put the brakes on.
■ Cross training, swimming and pool running are great ways to work out without constantly putting pressure on sore muscles and joints.
■ Book yourself an hour with a personal trainer for specific recovery training with weights and medicine balls.
A mind plan will help sign off the race just done, and help you prepare for the next one. In the weeks before a run, think how you may feel once the challenge is over. Deflated? The post-marathon blues, for example, is a well-documented phenomenon. Professor Ian Maynard, sports psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, works with elite athletes to help them through such post- performance slumps. ‘It’s important, during the training preceding a big race, to plan something else to focus on after it.
‘For people who want to recover quickly, having another run on the horizon helps them to refocus. You gather yourself for something new, to pre-empt the feelings of either being let down or lost, without a focus. It helps to evaluate your progress, too. Ask yourself: “Was I good, bad or indifferent? How will I change things next time?” A change is as good as a rest, in sport, as well as in life.’
AND SO TO BED
Slumber is so essential for reparation and preparation that some of us lose sleep over getting our full eight hours. Nick Littlehales, a sports sleep performance coach (www.sportsleepcoach.com) works with elite athletes and has studied the body’s natural rhythms throughout the 24-hour cycle. ‘Eight hours sounds like a nice normal optimum sleep time, but modern life is too pressured for one nocturnal period.
Elite athletes have had to move back to the principle of three natural sleep periods to allow for their punishing schedules,’ he says.
‘Instead of becoming tense about needing sleep, think in terms of mental and physical recovery periods before and after races. Have a consistent wake time that you apply every day and arrange your activities around that. Build up a routine that you stick to, trying to match your awake stage to natural daylight.
‘After a hard run, adrenalin causes the body’s functions to change; cooling down, stretching, refuelling and bringing your body into a rest state takes time, which is why you may find after an evening run that you need to go to bed later. But you need to wake up at the same time as always, so two periods during the day of “boost and balance” resting times will make up your quota.’
LIFESTYLE TWEAKS: MINDFUL RECOVERY
■ Rethink sleep. Try to achieve five 90-minute sleep/ rest cycles in 24 hours. So if a late night means six hours’ sleep, take two rest periods: one in your lunch hour and one between 5-7pm.
■ Pre-empt post run blues by planning something to look forward to, such as another race.
■ ‘Evaluate your performance, with a view to “controlling the controllable”,’ says Professor Maynard. ‘Fundamentally this means focusing on your own performance, not comparing yourself to others.’
■ Don’t make the mistake of trying to mask fatigue with caffeine. That wired feeling after taking on excessive caffeine in gels and drinks will do nothing for the recovery process when the running has to stop.
OVERTRAINING: WARNING SIGNS
If you’re thinking about the next run on completing the first, are you running on borrowed time? Signs you haven’t recovered adequately include:
■ Excessive fatigue, but you don’t sleep well at night
■ Dramatic weight loss or lack of appetite
■ Absence of menstrual period
■ Irritation, feelings of inadequacy, general low mood
■ Lowered immunity: you catch every cold and bug
■ Runner’s high replaced by set-jawed focus on the next session