An important component of the training program is recovery, perhaps even more important than the training itself since all the adaptations that a runner is striving to accomplish occur during the recovery period between runs, not during the runs themselves. Positive physiological adaptations to training occur when there is a correctly timed alternation between stress and recovery. When runners finish a workout, they are weaker, not stronger. How much weaker depends on the intensity and duration of the workout. If the stress is too great and/or the runners don’t recover before their next workout or race, their performance and their ability to adapt to subsequent workouts declines. The faster and more complete runners’ recovery, the more they will get out of their training and racing.
Immediately after a workout, runners begin to recover from the stress imposed by the workout and reestablish homeostasis over the course of a few hours. This process is characterized by:
- Decreases in heart rate and body temperature
- Glucose sparing
- Elevated fat oxidation
- Glycogen and creatine phosphate resynthesis
- Repair of cellular damage from free radicals
- Lactate removal from muscles
- Restoration of intracellular electrolyte concentrations and acid-base balance (pH)
To become a better runner, recovery must be factored into the training program, especially when running high mileage or doing high-intensity training. A good way to do this is to plan the training in 3- to 5-week cycles, using the first 2 to 4 weeks to push the training and introduce the stress, and then use the final week of the cycle as a recovery week to absorb the training just done, make the necessary adaptations, and recover so the runner can handle the upcoming heavier training load. Think of the training process as always taking two steps forward and one step back. Also, make the training polarized—run easy on easy days so you can truly recover and hard on your hard days to provide stress. When designed this way, with both stress and recovery given equal attention and diligence, it is an elegant system that works.
There are several factors that affect how quickly and completely a runner recovers from workouts, including age, training intensity, nutrition, environment, stress, and level of cardiovascular fitness. The most significant of these factors is age. Younger runners recover faster between workouts, enabling them to perform hard workouts more often. Workout intensity is the next biggest factor, with higher intensity workouts requiring longer recovery time. The environment also plays a role in recovery, with altitude and cold weather slowing recovery. Since recovery is an aerobic process, a high level of cardiovascular fitness speeds recovery due to the quicker delivery of nutrients and removal of metabolic waste by the circulatory system. Nutrition and hydration are also big factors influencing recovery.
Refueling after workouts is important for several reasons, including the replenishment of fuel stores and the repair of cellular damage. In regard to fuel, carbohydrate is the most important nutrient to replenish after a workout to replenish glycogen in the muscles. Glycogen synthesis is a complex biochemical process largely controlled by insulin and the availability and uptake of glucose from the circulation. To maximize the rate of glycogen synthesis after a hard or long run, runners should consume 0.7 gram of simple carbohydrates (sugar, preferably glucose) per pound of body weight within 30 minutes after they run and every two hours for 4 to 6 hours. Research has shown that delaying carbohydrate ingestion for just two hours after a workout can significantly reduce the rate at which glycogen is synthesized and stored in the muscles and liver.
Regarding reparation of cellular damage, protein is another important nutrient to consume after hard and long runs to repair the microscopic muscle fiber damage and to provide amino acids for adaptation to the training. Runners should consume 20 to 30 grams of complete protein (those which contain all essential amino acids) after they run.
Since nutrients in fluids are absorbed more quickly than from solid foods, carbs and protein should initially be consumed in a drink following a workout. Despite the many highly advertised commercial sports drinks, any beverage that contains carbohydrate and protein is great for recovery. My research and that of other scientists have shown that low-fat chocolate milk, which is high in both carbohydrate and protein, is a great post-workout recovery drink.
Although consuming carbs and protein immediately following a workout yields the fastest rate at which glycogen is resynthesized and stored in the muscles, only competitive runners need to focus on how quickly they will recover. For most individuals, eating a normal diet that doesn’t limit carbohydrate is enough to replenish glycogen within 24 hours, plenty of time for the next workout. If an individual is trying to lose weight, stuffing his or her mouth with a PowerBar right after a workout in the name of quick recovery is more than likely going to thwart his or her weight loss goal.
Nutrition also plays a big part in reducing the inflammation that comes with a lot of training. Foods that contain antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E act as an anti-inflammatory and help muscles recover quicker. Some of the best antioxidant foods for runners include:
- Dark chocolate: Of course, I had to include this one! Chocolate, especially the dark variety, is rich in antioxidants called flavonols.
- Mixed berries: Blueberries, cherries, blackberries, and raspberries contain a powerful group of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which give the berries their rich colors.
- Oranges: One orange offers 100 percent of the recommended daily value of the popular antioxidant vitamin C.
- Almonds: Nuts, especially almonds, are an excellent source of vitamin E. Eat a small handful of almonds at least 3 to 5 times per week.
- Sweet potatoes: One average-sized sweet potato offers over 250 percent of the recommended daily value for vitamin A in the form of beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant. They’re also a good source of vitamin C.
- Salmon: Salmon is one of the best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help balance the body’s inflammation.
- Stir-fry vegetables: With their mix of red and yellow peppers, onions, bok choy, and soy beans, stir-fry veggies offer a potent mix of antioxidants.
Recovery can also help alleviate exercise addiction, which is an unhealthy obsession. By taking regular rest days, you’ll have time to attend to other healthy things.