What Helps Your Body Recover After Running?
You return home from your long run for the week. You sit down to take your shoes off. You were feeling good on your run but now that you’ve stopped moving, stiffness in your legs and feet starts to set in. All you want to do is crash on the couch, but you decide to do the right thing and start your running recovery routine.
You make your way upstairs, and start to run yourself an ice bath. “This will all be worth it…” you say to yourself through gritted teeth as that first toe hits the frigid water. This is your least favorite part of long run days, but you know it’ll benefit your recovery… but will it?
TV and movies are filled with pro athletes sinking their bodies into ice baths after a big game or an especially hard practice. Growing up, your coaches always told you to go home and put an ice pack on your sore muscles so you could recover before tomorrow’s practice.
But what if I told you that cold therapy doesn’t actually help your muscles recover? That ice baths and cold packs may make your muscles feel better temporarily, but they don’t actually help your muscles to rebuild and recover any quicker. In fact, some studies are starting to suggest that cold therapy may delay recovery!
“Hold up! So I’ve been suffering all these years in ice baths just to slow down my recovery??”
Yep… sorry about that!
“What else have I been lied to about? And what should I have been doing instead??”
Don’t worry. I’ve done the research, and I’m here to share it with you. Sit down, get out of your ice bath, and let’s talk about some running recovery myths and what the science says you should be doing instead.
Running Recovery Myths
Yep, this includes both ice baths and localized ice packs.
But why are these methods of recovery so popular? Because immediately following the ice bath, your muscles will actually feel better!
Muscle recovery isn’t just about feeling better, though. It’s about getting better. It’s about repairing and rebuilding your muscles. It’s about showing up to your next run feeling better and feeling stronger.
After an intense workout, your muscles have little microtears in them. During recovery, your body heals these microtears. This healing process is what makes your muscles bigger and stronger.
Inflammation is not always bad!
Part of that healing process is inflammation. Temporary inflammation in your muscles signals to your body that it’s time to repair and rebuild your muscles . If you take away that inflammation, you also take away that signal to your body… and your body won’t know to repair your muscles!
On a side note, it’s important to mention that this repair and recovery only occurs with temporary inflammation. If you’re not allowing your body proper rest and you’re overtraining, your body is going to end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Your body’s signaling systems become dull to this constant request to repair and rebuild. That’s why when you’re overtraining, you have chronic sore muscles. For more information about Overtraining Symptoms, check out this blog post.
Cold therapy reduces inflammation.
Cold therapy reduces inflammation. It drops the temperature of your muscles, constricts your blood vessels, and reduces inflammation and pain. It therefore stops the signals your body needs to repair your muscles and can actually slow down the recovery process!
So if pain relief is what you’re after, cold therapy does actually work. But if you’re really looking to recover your muscles. To be able to show up to your next workout fitter and stronger. To not have to take as many rest days. Then skip the cold therapy and try something else.
It should also be noted that we’re talking strictly about muscle recovery here. Not the potential overall health benefits of cold therapy paired with breathwork like in the Wim Hof method. That’s an entire blog post in itself!
Epsom Salt baths
The theory behind Epsom salt baths is that when the salts are soaked in water, magnesium sulfate is dissolved into the water. When you sink down into that bath, you close your eyes, relax, and the magnesium sulfate permeates through your skin and enters your bloodstream. Your muscles begin to repair… or do they?
Maybe. It’s true that nutrients can be absorbed through your skin. And Epsom salt baths may be effective in aiding muscle recovery… but only if you have a magnesium deficiency! Magnesium is an important mineral that your body needs to repair and rebuild your muscles.
So if you’re lacking magnesium overall in your body, an Epsom salt bath may be one method of increasing your magnesium levels. Or you could take a supplement. Or you could eat more foods rich in magnesium like pumpkin seeds, almonds, and spinach. It should be noted I’m not dietician, though.
A quick side note… when your body experiences stress, it uses up magnesium stores in your body to try to deal with that stress. If you’re chronically stressed, or if you’re overtraining, you likely have low magnesium levels. Your body is going to struggle to recover your muscles properly. The solution is not to just pop a few supplements, though. Please... rest, recover, and get your body in optimal health if you really want to have optimal performance.
If you aren’t deficient in magnesium, the recovery benefits of Epsom salt baths are likely all in your head. That’s right. In studies where some healthy subjects were either given a regular bath or an Epsom salt bath, both groups reported a decrease in perceived pain following their baths.
One reason for this may be that water immersion in general has some promising results (though still inconclusive) for muscle recovery. This includes a possible increase in blood flow, which could help to bring more of the right nutrients to the “recovery zone”.
Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Acetaminophen… Most households keep at least one of these handy in the medicine cabinet. But is after a run really the best time to be reaching for that Tylenol bottle? Not if you’re looking to actually repair your muscles.
Much like an ice bath, the whole point of these drugs is that they’re meant to reduce inflammation which therefore reduces pain. It’s right in the name. Advil, Nurofen, Motrin, Bayer… they’re all known as Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID).
It’s actually been shown that NSAIDs slow the healing process… of muscles, bones, and tendons. If you ask me, that sounds like a recipe for injury.
Okay, so ice baths are out. Epsom salt baths are out. Pain meds are out… What can you do to help your muscles recover and repair? Let’s get into it...
Running Recovery Tips Backed by Science
That’s right. Good, old fashioned rest. It turns out that one of the best tools for muscle recovery is your own body! Don’t stress it out more. Give it the nutrients it needs. Let it rest. Let it recover. Let it do its thing.
The amount of time you need to rest can greatly depend on how much you actually stressed your body out. How much your muscles are damaged. And how much you depleted your glycogen stores.
When it comes to glycogen stores (i.e. stored energy for your muscles to work), passive rest replenishes the glycogen stores more quickly than active rest. Which makes sense. Even if you’re just going for a walk, you’re still using up some of your glycogen for your muscles to take every step.
That being said, active rest can still benefit your recovery… especially if you’re itching to move your body. It’s definitely better to go for a walk or do some gentle yoga than it is to go out and crush another run.
The idea behind active recovery is that it increases the blood flow to your muscles. This increased blood flow helps to bring the right proteins into the muscles for the repair and rebuilding of muscle tissue. It’s important to remember not to stress your body further during active recovery, though!
Active recovery also helps to clear lactate more quickly. For every lactate molecule produced, a hydrogen ion is also produced. A buildup of hydrogen is what actually makes you “feel the burn” and for your muscles to start to fail.
Lactate is actually used for fuel, so it certainly has benefits during exercise. For every lactate molecule that is used for fuel, it takes with it a hydrogen ion. The taking away of hydrogen ions delays “the burn”. In intense exercise, though, there comes a point where your body can no longer use the lactate for fuel. Lactate begins to build. Hydrogen also begins to build. You feel the burn.
Active recovery to clear lactate seems to be especially effective immediately following repeated intense exercise, like a sprint workout. As a general guideline, shoot for 65% of your aerobic capacity, and for no longer than 20 minutes.
Ahh… sleep. Everyone knows we need it. Most people wish they could get more. But few of us actually prioritize it. But here’s the thing. If you want to rebuild and restore your muscles, you need to start prioritizing sleep.
During Non-REM sleep (aka slow wave or deep sleep), your brain is resting and the blood flow to your muscles increases. The blood flow brings with it some much needed oxygen and nutrients your muscles need to recover.
And if you want to actually grow your muscles and become stronger, non-REM sleep is also when your body secretes growth hormones.
How much sleep you need can vary greatly depending on how intensely you’re exercising. General guidelines tend to recommend 7-9 hours every night, though. In one study, college basketball players increased their sleep by nearly 2 hours every night. After a bit over a month, they all had a significantly increased sprint time and had greater accuracy on the court.
The jury’s still out a bit on this one. One study shows that marathon runners that wore compression socks below the knee for 48 hours following their race recovered significantly faster than non compression sock wearers.
Other resources suggest that compression socks decrease blood flow to your legs, suggesting they inhibit recovery. Other resources suggest that the compression socks increase blood flow.
Devices that provide pulsing pressure have been shown to increase blood flow but haven’t shown any improvement in overall muscle strength or running performance .
So what’s a runner to think?
In general, everyone seems to agree that compression socks will do no harm. So if you’re really looking for that “magic pill” other than rest and sleep, it could be worth a shot!
The scientific support behind foam rolling is still lacking. But the little research that’s out there all tends to indicate that foam rolling is an effective technique for improving muscle recovery.
One study recommends 20 minute sessions on a high-density roller following intense exercise . You should apply light to medium pressure. More pain does not always mean more gain! In fact, if you apply too much pressure, you could end up worse off than if you didn’t foam roll at all.
It’s important to note that you should not roll a sore IT band! For more information on how to foam roll properly for runners, I found this article from Run To the Finish helpful.
So next time you walk in the door from a long run, you can skip the ice bath and head for your bed… assuming your family, work, and personal life allows, ha!
In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, rest is important! If you don’t rest enough, you could find yourself overtraining.
Not sure how to work rest and recovery into your training plan? I can help you. Check out my Coaching Page to see how we could work together.
Happy Recovery leads to… Happy Running ✌️😊
Jillian Beckham is wife of Brent. She’s extremely relieved to learn that ice baths are out, because she hates being cold. She’s also a health and wellness copywriter. To find out more about what she can do to help your business online, check out her website Beckham Copywriting.