Best Of The Rest

What you do when you are not running could be the key to becoming faster

Posted: 7 September 2005
by Melanie McManus

What you do when you are not running could be the key to becoming faster

After running 3:23 in his debut marathon, Aidan Hewison, a university researcher, set his sights on cracking three hours for the distance. It wasn't an unreasonable expectation: he'd run under 38 minutes for 10K and was close to 1:25 for a half-marathon. So in the build-up to his next marathon he ramped up his training by adding speedwork and hill repetitions, doing more long runs at a faster pace, and sometimes skipping rest days. The result: he managed 3:32 in his next outing over 26.2 miles. That didn't put him off and he redoubled his efforts and pushed harder still. Yet each year his marathon pace became slower. After running a disappointing 3:47 in 2003, Hewison hired a personal trainer, hoping he would unlock the secret behind his sputtering performances. The diagnosis? Inadequate recovery.

Like Hewison, most runners don't have a problem pushing themselves, but when you're focusing on building endurance and speed, it's easy to forget how important rest is. "It's when you're not running that the muscle rebuilds itself and becomes stronger," says Runner's World Medical Adviser Dr Patrick Milroy. "If recovery is insufficient, you'll break down more than you build up." Recovery is vital whether you want to run the race of your life or just make it to the starting line. Here's how to make the most of your down time.

Ease Up

If you stop seeing positive gains or your legs feel sluggish or especially sore, you're overdoing it. "Don't wait for aches or pains before you take a recovery day," says Milroy. "That's a sign of overtraining." Take at least one rest day per week and additional days as needed. Check your pulse for 60 seconds before getting out of bed. If it's 20 per cent higher than normal, you're due for a rest day.

If you're training for a marathon, your long-run pace should be one to two minutes slower than race pace. Alternate hard efforts (speedwork, hill repetitions, long runs) with easy ones: three- to four-mile easy-pace recovery runs, cross-training, or complete rest. Make your rest days count for more than just a day off by doing something you enjoy that you don't have time for while training. A film or a dinner out serves as more than a reward, because relaxation helps you heal. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that a distraction can lower stress levels and raise levels of cytokines, which are hormones that help tissue regenerate.


If you don't eat within 15 to 30 minutes after every run, you risk delaying your recovery for up to 24 hours, which leads to diminished performance, says Dr Leslie Bonci, a nutrition expert. In a recent study, researchers at Vanderbilt University in the United States had athletes consume carbs and protein immediately after exercise or three hours later. Protein synthesis was three times greater in the group that refuelled right away. Bonci recommends 50g of carbohydrates and 10g of protein after you exercise. Yoghurt and muesli, or an energy bar and carbohydrate drink will do the trick.

Baby Your Body

If you want to run like an elite runner, start acting like one. When Paula Radcliffe isn't running she does everything she can to speed her recovery. It would not be unusual to see her mixing her protein drink at track side after finishing an interval session or rushing home for an ice bath. Then there are daily sessions of physiotherapy and massage at the hands of Gerard Hartman and the half of the day she spends sleeping. A recent Canadian study put some of Radcliffe's methods to the test. Subjects performed sprint intervals on a stationary bike followed by a cold-water soak, a massage, or complete rest. When they repeated the interval session 24 hours later, the people who only rested showed a decline in performance compared with those who had the cold-water soak or massage. Ice baths and sports massages improve circulation and flush out waste products, reducing inflammation and soreness. A weekly sports massage is ideal, but those of us without sponsorship deals can do well with one every four to six weeks. Self-massage using foam rollers could be an at-home alternative.

Recovery operation
To restore your body to its pre-race state, recovery needs to start as soon as you cross the finish line. Here’s our post-race recovery guide.
Time after race Recovery activity
0-10 minutes Walk slowly. "It prevents blood from pooling in your legs, which can cause light-headedness," says Janet Hamilton, author of Running Strong & Injury Free.
10-15 minutes Drink 250-500ml of sports drink.
15-25 minutes Put on warm clothes. After a race, your core temperature will drop. The colder you are, the harder it is for blood flow to get to the heart.
25-30 minutes Refuel. Can’t eat? Try chocolate milk. It has a replenishing combo of protein and carbs and will go down easily if your stomach’s not ready for solid food.
30-45 minutes Stretch, focusing on hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors. Spend more time on your quads if a large portion of the race was downhill.
60-80 minutes Take a "contrast bath." Hamilton recommends spending five minutes in a cool tub and five minutes in a warm shower, repeating the sequence twice.
Remainder of race day Refuel and relax. Eat carbs and protein. Drink plenty of water. Nap if you’re tired and don’t stay out too late at the post-race party.
Day two You’ll benefit more from a massage the next day. Most muscle damage doesn’t manifest itself with symptoms until 24 hours later.
Weeks one to four Take one day of recovery for every mile raced. That doesn't mean complete rest. Just take it easy and do more cross-training.

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Discuss this article

I've just read the interesting article Best of the Restby Melanie McManus, which says that a cold bath improves circulation to damaged muscles after training, which is good because it acts as an aid to recovery by flushing away waste products, supplying nutrients etc.
Within that article is a recommendation by the physiotherapist Janet Hamilton to take Contrast baths (alternating hot/cold) to aid recovery. That sounds to me like it would lead to an increase in circulation to the muscles, as presumably do sports massages. However the linked article by Janet Hamilton says that hot baths improve circulation, and that this is a bad thing, causing swelling and inflammation.
I'm slightly confused.
Is improved circulation after a hard race good or bad?
And if it's good, what's the best way of achieving it?
Anyone know what the scientific evidence is for these various options?
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 13:37

It's all pseudo-scientific bollox. Have whatever sort of bath you prefer :o)
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 13:44

Calling the article in question pseudo-scientific bollocks is somewhat short-sighted. I am the first to admit that there is alot of training information out there (especially on the net)masquerading as science-based advice, but this article is not one of them. Yes, science based advice does change over time, but that is simply because the workings of the most complex machine on the planet are not fully understood yet. Scientists give the best advice they can with the data they currently have.
With respect to the questions Bernard posed, I am possibly not fully qualified to give definitive answers but my layman's understanding is this. Any form of vigorous exercise will cause micro-trauma to the muscles used. This is a natural process and not one to be concerned with, it is actually beneficial as the body reacts to these micro-tears by laying down more muscle in that area to better prepare the body for a similar bout of exercise in the future. The problem with the micro-trauma is that it induces leakage of tissue fluid from the muscle cells, which can in turn lead to muscle soreness. The purpose of ice-baths seems to be to reduce the initial leakage of this tissue fluid by reducing circulation to the affected area immediately after exercise, and thus reducing post exercise muscle soreness. If a hot bath was taken instead, circulation would increase and more tissue fluid would leak, as more blood would be pumped through the 'damaged' area, thus leading to the possibility of increased post exercise muscle soreness. After an ice bath of 5-15 mins (depending on your level of bravado!)the micro tears seem alot less prone to leakage, so a sports massage would be very beneficial as that would increase circulation through the affected tissues,physically pumping away the toxins present in the muscles, as well as increasing the circulation through them. Contrast bathing is said to offer the same benefits, but without the outside physical assistance of a therapist's hands you are solely reliant on your own bodies circulation, which in my experience is nowhere near as effective.
I hope that this is of some help to someone, and if there are any sports scientists/therapists out there who would like to correct my layman's opinion, I would love them to post a message as I'd love to learn the TRUTH and improve my training regime!!
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 14:39

From stuff I'v read in the past the advice tends to be cold is best just after injury to lessen inflammation and then once the pain starts to subside as muscles/joints begin to heal hot is best to aid circulation and speed up healing.

TT ;0)
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 17:16

Although I have to say I'v never tried a cold bath and don't intend to in the near future (but then I haven't attempted a marathon yet). Although I do like a cool shower after a run to cool down so suppose thats a tamer version. But warm baths are definitely good for loosening up the muscles.

TT ;0)
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 17:20

If I were translating the consensus of scientific research into layman's language, it would summarise neatly as "Changing the temperature of your skin and the outer few millimetres of the layer of fat under your skin has not been shown to make the slightest difference to the rate at which muscles heal."

Why WOULD it? It's biologically implausible.
Posted: 08/09/2005 at 17:25

Thanks for the various opinions. They sound plausible. I'd like to read some proper research on the subject.
Re. the cold bath issue, the original article cited a piece of research showing cold baths improve recovery after sprint cycling.
Changing the temperature of your skin and subcutaneous fat would (as I understand it) divert blood away from these surface areas and therefore increase blood pressure (which is why immersion in cool water increases the rate of urine production).
Therefore it could be argued that immersing the whole body in a cold bath would increase the flow of blood through the leg muscles and other tissues, because of the raised blood pressure, therefore removing lactic acid etc.
Perhaps this is the reason for the beneficial effect, rather than reduction of leakage of tissue fluid by cold-induced narrowing of the blood vessels in the leg muscles.

As Velociraptor implied, I doubt core body temperature would be affected very much by a short time in a cold bath (also a drop in core temerature could be quite dangerous).
A second explanation for possible beneficial effects of cold baths is perhaps that the leg muscles are sufficiently far from the main part of the body (ie vital internal organs) to experience a reduction in blood supply by narrowing of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) as the body attempts to maintain the core temperature during cold immersion (think of numb feet during cold weather hikes).
Perhaps Paula Radcliffe just immerses her legs in the cold water?
Posted: 09/09/2005 at 14:53


not enough penetration then, Vrap?
Posted: 09/09/2005 at 14:54

(realises she's been cheeky to a dino with sharp teeth - and scarpers)
Posted: 09/09/2005 at 14:56

Paula sits waist deep in a bath with cold water and ice cubes (or at least thats what it says in her autobiography)
Posted: 09/09/2005 at 17:30

Do what works for you via trial and error. I have tried cold baths but they do not seem to have made any difference and prefer a warm bath simply because it is relaxing and that, in itself, is worth a lot. It is worth saying that I do use ice after my post-run stretch wrapped in a tea towel etc (the ice, not me!) to calm down any tender spots.

The problem I have found with all this 'science' is that it breeds the idea that rest can be avoided. For certain personalities that simply means more injury misery from over-training.
Posted: 10/09/2005 at 10:28

is that model in the photo meant to be a runner?

Looks like they borrowed one of the gym monkeys from Men's Health.

Tsk - when are RW going to start using realistic photos?
Posted: 11/09/2005 at 13:24

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