Things are starting to get exciting if you’re a marathoner, iron man competitor, ultra-racer, spartan racer, or distance runner of any kind. This is the time of year where mileage starts to go up and consequently the creaky knees, ankles, feet, and low backs of many running competitors will start to rear their perennial ugly mugs. As any competitive athlete understands, especially runners, is that in order for optimal results on race day, recovery needs to be equally optimal. Whether that recovery comes in the form of ice baths, topical creams, CBD, — other anti-inflammatory products —- mobility and stretching work, saunas or the other myriad of ways to maintain athleticism, prioritizing recovery is the most important thing for performance.
As counter intuitive as it sounds, we actually do not grow during our workouts but in periods of rest and recovery. Muscle tissue, connective tissue, our cardiovascular, nervous, and digestive systems among many other things, actually gets put through the ringer through bouts of intense exercise or extended durations of exercise. We’ve covered this before but it’s worth repeating: relaxation is the main mechanism for recovery in the human body. During periods of rest and relaxation is actually where the body can adapt to the stressors and stimuli placed upon it. Your energy stores get replaced, your muscles and systems heal, your body adapts, and you are ready to hit the road or the weight room yet again.
There are many forms and modalities of recovery, as listed above, so much so that there’s an entire subsection of the fitness industry being built around it (LYMBR being well within the confines of that description). Now, for someone new to distance running or competitive racing, it’s very difficult to figure out what the greatest mode of recovery is going to be. Like exercise itself, it’s good to play around with different things and see what you like, and see what likes you. What I mean by that is this: There are going to be things that you enjoy doing that may give great psychological benefit, but very little physiological benefit. Having a beer or a big greasy sandwich after a long run, for example. While these may make you feel incredible immediately, there will be little to zero long term or short term physiological benefit from doing so. Yes, replenishing glycogen stores post heavy cardio is not a bad thing, and research has pointed to heavy carbohydrate sources such as beer and bread in order to do that. There are reasons I would not choose those as glycogen replenishment vehicles over others, but that is for another article, and I am by no means vilifying beer and sandwiches. Furthermore I am not discounting the psychological benefits of unwinding after a tough week of workouts with a Sam Adams and an Italian combo, to that I am no stranger. However, there will be modes of recovery that you will have little interest in doing when you start. These are modalities with high physiological benefits, these include mobility work, ice baths, foam rolling, decreased screen time, and dietary changes. These, at least initially, are going to be somewhat psychologically taxing and are going to be wholly unappealing when you start. These are, unfortunately, the things that are most necessary for long term recovery, sustainability, physiological maintenance and improvement. As I mentioned above, these are the things that like you, possibly even love you. Although these activities are often uncomfortable and usually the last thing you want to do after a long day, consistency transforms these often grueling habits into ones we cannot imagine living without. It just takes time and concerted effort.
I have found through years of training and fixing marathoners, iron man competitors, and ultra-runners that the happiest and most impressive athletes are those that exist astutely in between those two modes of recovery and “relaxation” (I put relaxation in quotations because deep foam rolling and ice baths are in no way relaxing or soothing nor will they ever be. You just become desensitized to self-inflicted masochism over time). They train very hard. Their physiological “like you” activities are dialed in as well as their diet, sleep, and stress management. They don’t shy away from foods or beverages like beer or sandwiches but consume in moderation, usually letting completely loose from the diet for one day a week, commonly known as a cheat meal, “Faturday”, diet break, or whatever nomenclature you wish to assign. In essence, they train very hard, but they recover with the same if not greater fortitude and aplomb. I encourage you to follow in the footsteps of these individuals. Training is very hard, as it should be, but it should also be extremely fun and rewarding. Unless you’re a David Goggins style figure who enjoys and subscribes to the military ideology of “embrace the suck”, you need to let your foot off the gas and enjoy the times between the struggle. There is nothing wrong with going balls to the wall and approaching training, diet, and recovery with a very rigid and militaristic approach. However, most individuals that do that experience high levels of burnout that usually come in the form of injury, illness, or loss of interest altogether. Adherence is the most important factor when it comes to diet and exercise. Oftentimes I’ll be asked by friends or family “what’s the best diet” or more commonly “what’s the best form of exercise for me?”. While I have my prejudices about certain kinds of exercise/diets, and believe almost all people should do some form of weightlifting, my answer is almost always “the one you’re going to stick to and enjoy.” Life’s too short to eat kale and back squat if you hate both of those things.
I hope this helps outline the importance of recovery and to further highlight the direct correlation between an optimal recovery routine and optimizing performance. This is especially true for competitive runners and athletes breaking through a higher respiratory threshold. For those who want to start prioritizing their recovery but don’t have access to things like foam rollers, ice baths, saunas, or what have you, I will leave you with these little cheats to assist you in starting your recovery journey.
- Sleep is your best friend: It doesn’t matter if you have the best diet, training, and recovery tools at your disposal. If your sleep is suboptimal, performance will follow. Sleep does a lot, all of which I will cover in a later blog, but for now just understand that quality and quantity of sleep are just as important as diet and exercise in regards to sports performance.
- Diet is your other best friend: You’ve probably heard the saying “You can’t outrun a terrible diet.” As much as I hate very general platitudes, this one is 100% true. Some people cite Usain Bolt eating chicken McNuggets and french fries after his races and wonder if diet is really as important as we think. First of all, most of us should not be comparing ourselves to Usain Bolt. Second of all, yes, diet is extremely. In the most distilled and simplistic explanation, food is fuel and fuel is what makes you go. Furthermore, there’s probably a reason we saw him eating that stuff after his races and not before. Remember the beer and sandwich example.
- Cold showers, the lazy/ economical ice baths: If you don’t have access to an ice bath, or you’re like me and live in an apartment without a colossal freezer chest then turning your water temperature down for the last few minutes during your shower is a great way to start introducing cold therapy as a means of recovery. Again, without going into too much detail, Ice baths are fantastic for metabolic waste removal and generally make people feel much better once they’re out.
- Active, repetition based stretching is just as good if not better than foam rolling at releasing and improving tissue function: This is not to discount foam rolling as a means of recovery. However, those without foam rollers can still active repetition based stretching to assist with release, waste removal, blood flow, tissue restoration, and unlike foam rolling has innumerable central and autonomic nervous system benefits.
Written by Conner Fritchley, LYMBR Academy Trainer and Darien Therapist.
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