If you’re active, you probably know the term “recovery,” right? I’d always heard it, and I started to hear it even more when I started running last year. Of course, me and my brilliant stubbornness just recently started to listen to all that recovery talk. And wouldn’t you know? I went from battling a new injury or pain every other week to being able to run just about however I want. Now, of course, I have no way of knowing for sure just how much of a role recovery played in this change, but I do know that it certainly didn’t hurt.
The thing that I didn’t realize for a while was that recovery doesn’t just come in vanilla, but in a TON of different flavors. Stretching, foam rolling, ice baths, and even (this one threw me for a loop) more running. Which reminds me: Recovery is important for all active people, not just runners!
Stretching is probably one of the more common forms of recovery… Go up to just about any person and ask them to show you some stretches, and they are bound to know at least a few. Things like lunges, quad holds, and forward bends are all stretches referred to as “static stretches,” which basically means that they are poses that you get into and then hold for X amount of time (alternately, “dynamic stretching,” which is a good choice for warming up, involve moves like knee raises and leg swings, in which you are constantly moving, rather than holding a pose). While you don’t want to do static stretching before activity (according to some research, they can cause injury and fatigue muscles), performing them after, when your muscles are warm, can help your muscles recovery faster, as well as promote greater flexibility and range of motion, which is beneficial to just about any activity you can think of. If you aren’t a regular Stretch Armstrong, don’t worry; the flexibility and balance will naturally come to you if you stretch regularly after workouts.
Foam rolling… Ah, yes, foam rolling. The recovery I love to hate (even more than ice baths, which I’ll get to in a bit). Foam rolling is best described by the following: It hurts so good. Now before you freak out and think I’m crazy weird (well, I mean, I am… but that’s beside the point), allow me to explain. Foam rolling basically involves taking a cylinder of hard foam and, you guessed it, rolling your muscles with it. They also make smaller roller sticks which you hold with your hands to roll along your muscles, rather than having to roll your body along the foam roller (which, as I learned the hard way, can require quite a bit of core strength, so if you don’t want to do another workout after your workout, you may want to try a handheld version). For those who have experience with foam rolling, then I’m sure you know exactly what I mean about the “hurts so good” thing. If you don’t know, here you go: Basically, the roller puts consistent pressure on your muscles as you roll up and down the length of your quad, hamstring, shin, whatever you are rolling. This helps to work through any knots or tension and is basically a sort of deep tissue massage… But holy crap, it can be rough. Don’t get me wrong, I believe foam rolling works and I do my best to do it as much as possible… But I can’t help but grimace each time I roll down my quads. Yikes.
Does the thought of sitting in a tub full of ice water sound awesome to you? It does? Well, first off, you are insane. And second… Congrats, because I have a wonderful recovery option for you! Ice baths are one of those things where I understand the strange looks and comments runners often get from non-runners. Even if I do see the joy in running mile after mile when the average person doesn’t, I can definitely understand thinking someone who chooses, of his or her own free will, to sit in a tub full of ice water is a little on the cuckoo side. But those crazy moments spent in that frosty tub work (at least, they have for me). So why should you make yourself a human popsicle after a hard workout? Simple. The cold temperature helps to reduce inflammation in your legs. Less inflammation = Less pain and discomfort. A couple helpful tips: 1) Eat something. It not only helps to distract you and pass the time, it draws blood away from your extremities and into your core, which helps to speed up the anti-inflammatory process. 2) Wear socks. When I get ready to take an ice bath, I take off my shoes… And that’s it. Sometimes I will actually put on an extra pair of socks before I get in. Why? Because my feet are usually cold anyway, and the first couple times I tried an ice bath, my feet went “commando” and it was almost painful. With socks, though, it isn’t that bad.
I usually sit in my ice baths for 5 to 10 minutes, just enough to get the cold in my muscles. I know of some people who go for 20+ minutes… I’m pretty sure I could handle that physically, but I think I’d get crazy bored. I can’t even sit in a bubble bath for longer than about 15.
Okay, let’s see… Stretching, foam rolling, ice baths… Ah yes, more activity! Seems counterintuitive, right? To do more of the thing that you are trying to recover from? But for me, I’ve already seen a difference. Last year, my long runs were always my last run of the week, and were always followed by my rest day. This year, however, I’ve been doing a shorter, super duper easy recovery run the day after my long run, and so far the difference has been pretty great. I feel like my legs bounce back faster if I give them a bit of a shakeout the day after a long run. Now, of course, if you are flat out exhausted or sore, then the effort you’d put into a recovery run may not be worth it (even at a super easy pace, running still requires quite a bit of effort); you don’t want to jeopardize your next key workout by forcing yourself to go out for a recovery. However, if your legs aren’t feeling like two flesh colored sacks of lead, then a recovery run will probably prove to be beneficial. The key (and this was something I practically had to force myself to do) is to not push it… At all. Run super easy, make sure this is a break for your legs from the usual hard distance/hills/speed/whatever your key workouts consist of. I used to want every run to be as fast as possible. The result? I was in pain… a lot. So leave your ego at home and allow yourself to run slow and gentle. You aren’t out there for anyone else and you have nobody to impress.
Not a runner? Active recovery days can still help. Yoga, light weight training, easy cardio on a machine, or walking are all great ways to help shake out your muscles. Don’t worry, you can still lay back and relax on your full rest days, but active recovery can certainly have its place in your routine as well.
Speaking of… Rest. Don’t ever feel guilty for taking a day to do a whole lot of nothing. Learn to listen to your body, to know when you can push and to know when to back off. It can take some time to really get in tune with yourself (and to learn to turn off your ego, believe me), but once you do, I believe your training will benefit. Knowing when you can push and go all-out is great, and I think everyone loves the feeling of accomplishment and just feeling freaking awesome that comes with that, but knowing when you need to slow down, reign it in, and allow yourself to recover is just as, if not more important. Take it from someone who shunned recovery for several months, and got shin splints, IT band issues, and knee problems during that time: Recovery is your friend.
Lauren Quackenbush (aka Mrs. Q) is an Army wife who blogs over at DuckOnTheRun.com. She is an avid runner who also finds joy in other areas of fitness, particularly weight lifting and yoga. She plans to earn her certification as a personal trainer, as well as her degree in Exercise Science.