As endurance athletes, we push ourselves to the edge of our abilities to make small improvements each time we workout in hopes of becoming stronger and faster. During our training sessions we strain ourselves to go longer or faster than is comfortable. In the process, we cause microscopic tears in our muscle tissue. Stimulated by the damage, our bodies react by adapting to the stress. Our fuel stores open for maximum refueling, and our veins deliver white blood cells to repair the micro tears.
So the question is, are we becoming better athletes during our workouts, or is it the time in between them? Neglecting to take sufficient rest or replenish our depleted bodies' needs not only limits our improvements, but can start a negative downward spiral. "It happens at least once a year," says Lauren Fleshman, who finished 7th in the World Championships 5k in 2011 (highest American finish in history). "I get busy or impatient and I justify it, saying, 'I'm getting in the workouts, I'm checking the boxes, that's what's important.' I let the recovery aspects go, and I wind up sick or injured. I realize then that it's time to get focused and do the little things right. Sometimes I just need a kick in the butt."
Justin Whittaker, D.C., a Portland, Ore.-based chiropractor who works on some of the world's top track athletes, stresses the importance of refueling as a key component to recovery. "You have a predictable timeline," he says. "For two hours post-workout your body is trying to restock what it's just bfurnt. For those two hours it's metabolizing, breaking down, synthesizing to the liver everything that's available. If you wait 'til you've driven home and showered you won't be absorbing the nutrients as well as you could." For that reason it's his advice to keep a recovery product (food, drink or supplement) on hand, either in your car or gym bag.
Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan floats. "For me, hydrotherapy is an absolute must," she says. "During my heavy training I don't go more than once a week, but that weightless time just helps flush everything out." If you can't make it to the pool, take a cool bath. Ice is nice, but not necessary–just run cool water from the tap deep enough to cover your legs for a recovery boost.
Schedule a massage two or more hours post-race. Massages too soon to finishing the race can create more soreness. Massage can have a dramatic effect on recovery times, and they are a wonderful reward. You can also perform your own massage with some of the products on the market like "the Stick" and foam rollers. They are great for deep tissue massage for hamstrings, calves, thighs and hips.
Ian Dobson, 2008 Olympian at 5,000m, views each of his runs as part stress, part recovery. Dobson moves. "Even if I'm feeling tired, I make sure to take a walk and move all my joints," he says. Recovery is heavily dependent on blood flow. Make a point of getting up from your desk or out of your car for a few minutes every hour.
Dobson also does dynamic stretches. Get more bang for your buck with high-energy, fullbody movements that stretch muscles and increase joint mobility. High knee marches, standing leg swings or full squats all do the trick.
Although muscle breakdown is needed in order to improve overall muscle fitness, it is important to remember that too much muscle trauma can have a negative effect, especially early in your training program.
Mix Carbs and Protein: Studies show that the addition of protein to a carbohydrate-rich recovery supplement enhances insulin release in the blood, leading to an increased carbohydrate uptake by your muscle cells and a subsequent increase in glycogen manufacturing.
Taking a daily regimen of high-quality vitamin and mineral supplements will ensure your body stays healthy during training and speeds up the recovery process.