The science of recovery

Want to know the formula for running success? It goes: run, recover, repeat. While most of us get the beginning and end bits right, the middle step often gets overlooked.

It's partly because we're short of time, but I suspect there's also the belief that, unless you're running 80 miles a week or churning out sub-2:45 marathons, recovery doesn't really matter. The evidence certainly suggests otherwise.

Sidestepping good recovery practice can leave you more susceptible to aches, pains, colds, infections, fatigue and even injury - not to mention leaving you less than raring to go for your next session. Click through our slideshow to find out what works and why.

Rest

Boost your performance: Give your body the rest it deserves

One aspect of recovery you probably don't have too much of an issue with is the importance of rest. While running places stress on the body, triggering physiological adaptations, it's during rest that these adaptations actually take place. So if you don't get enough rest, you won't reap the benefits of all your hard training. But what does rest entail? Sitting on the sofa with your feet up? Sleeping?

Well, growth hormone - a substance that stimulates muscle growth and repair - is released while we sleep, aiding recovery and adaptation. Research at Bangor University in Wales found that even one night's sleep deprivation had a detrimental effect on running performance. But rest isn't all about getting your ZZZs in.
 
Researchers also found that the rate of recovery from a tough treadmill run was significantly faster after practising the yoga pose savasana (meaning 'corpse pose') - the prostrate, upturned-palms position - compared with simply lying down.

Yoga teacher and runner Laura Denham-Jones also recommends viparita karani, a pose in which you lie down and raise your legs - find out how to do this pose.

"Elevation helps relieve cramps and aids blood circulation to the upper body and head," she says. "The posture also provides a gentle stretch for the hamstrings and calves, and releases tension in the back."

Even running itself can be a form of recovery: "An easy run, bike ride or swim can be described as 'active' recovery," explains Sarah Connors, a physiotherapist and member of the Asics Pro Team. "The movement can help to flush toxins out of the working muscles, stimulate circulation and dissipate muscle tension and tightness."

If you do opt for recovery running or cross-training, keep the duration below 45 minutes and consider using a heart rate monitor to ensure you are working at an easy pace. Also stick to soft, even, surfaces such as dirt trails.

Your recovery strategy

Build sufficient rest into your schedule - and that's not just taking rest days but also allowing recovery time after runs, before rushing on with your day. As an important race approaches, try to increase the amount of sleep you get to maximise the chances of a good performance.

Nutrition

Getting the right balance of nutrients is key to recovery

It's clear that what you eat and drink influences how you perform - but there's plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the right nutrition is also crucial for optimal recovery.

"Recovery nutrition is often neglected," says Karen Reid, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist (performancefood.co.uk). "But the sooner you get the right nutrients in, the quicker you'll be able to repair damage, replenish fuel stores and flush out metabolic by-products."

You might sleep better, too, which will contribute to the recovery process. "Levels of cortisol and adrenaline are high after training, which can hamper sleep patterns," explains Reid. "Refuelling helps dissipate stress hormones and calms the body down."

Post-run menu

So what should be on the post-run menu? "You need carbohydrates to replenish and protein to repair," says Reid. Research shows that taking the two together works best. The ratio of protein to carbohydrate should be 1:3 - so around 20g of protein to 60g carbohydrate. Aim to take on board 1g of carbohydrate for every kg of your body weight.

If a long run takes away your appetite, you could opt for liquid replenishment. Recent research from Northumbria University, which followed athletes performing two exercise bouts, with a recovery drink between the two, found they performed better when they had a milk-based drink compared with water or a traditional carbohydrate-based sports drink.

"A milkshake has the right sort of balance of carbohydrate and protein, as well as being a good source of electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium and potassium," explains Reid.

You also need to consider antioxidants to combat the oxidative stress caused by hard exercise. "If you run in a polluted city environment, taking on antioxidants is even more important," says Reid. One type of antioxidant, anthocyanin, has been shown to be particularly beneficial and can be found in dark red fruit and veg such as blackberries, plums, cherries and beetroot.

But before you open the fridge to eat a single morsel, think about hydration. "If the cells are dehydrated, you can't transport nutrients to them - nor can you synthesise glycogen, as each gram needs three grams of water. Hydration has to come first." While there's no set volume of fluid you need, it's important to drink little and often after exercise until your urine runs clear and is being produced in normal volume.

Your recovery strategy

After a long or hard run, refuel with a milkshake and a piece of fruit. If you've sweated a lot, a salty snack such as pretzels can help replace lost electrolytes and stimulate thirst.

And what if you're on the move and can't lay your hands on a healthy meal or snack? "Recovery bars and drinks do the job," says Reid. "Look for something with around 20g of protein and 50-60g of carbs. But bear in mind that you don't get all the other goodies, like antioxidants and omega-3s."

Discover sports nutritionist Karen Reid's ideal post-run meal.

Massage

Hands-on treatment will aid all-important muscular repair

Sports massage is widely used to help recovery and is part and parcel of every elite athlete's regime. "Sports massage can release muscle tension, maintain flexibility and reduce the viscosity of intra-muscular fluid, which helps to flush out waste products," explains Clive Lacey, sports massage therapist and lecturer (bodymaintenance.co.uk).  
  
"If you have regular treatments, a good sports massage therapist will be able to spot any problem areas that, if left untreated, could turn into full-blown injuries further down the line," he adds.

Massage debate

A study last year from Queen's University in Canada rubbed a few sports massage therapists up the wrong way by suggesting that far from aiding blood circulation and assisting in the removal of lactic acid from muscles, sports massage actually slows down the process - by as much as 25 per cent.

But, according to Lacey, the findings don't really downplay the importance of sports massage. "It's not lactic acid that causes muscle soreness, it's microtrauma - the tiny tears in muscle fibres," he says. "And massage, through breaking down fibrous tissue and adhesions, can help heal the damage."

A data review from Ohio  State University in the US found moderate evidence to support the use of massage therapy in assisting recovery - and evidence that it could alleviate the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
 
There's also the psychological aspect of recovery to consider, says Lacey. "You can do all your stretching and icing - but massage is something that's done for you. It makes you feel good because you are looking after yourself - it's a reward for all your hard training." Even Michael Tschavosky, author of the Canadian study, also says he's a fan of sports massage because it "feels good".

"The best way to find a reputable therapist is by recommendation from other runners," says Lacey. Or you can check out the Sports Massage Association website (sportsmassageassociation.org) to find a practitioner in your area.

Your recovery strategy

If your budget can stretch to it, book yourself in for regular treatments when you're in serious training - once a month, or more, is ideal. Otherwise, try to schedule the odd treatment for a couple of days after a long or hard run. The rest of the time, you can top up with self-massage techniques.

"Work from foot to hip, using the flat or heel of the hand, fingers or thumbs," says Lacey. "When you find a tight area, massage gently for a few minutes and then apply light to medium pressure, holding for up to seven seconds before gently stretching out that area.

"Using one hand on top of the other allows you to apply more force. Avoid rubbing bony areas and stay away from sites of injury - incorrect treatment could make problems worse."

Find out how to give your calves, hamstrings and quads some massage TLC.

Stretching

If you neglect post-run stretches, you run the risk of long-term damage

Most of us manage a few perfunctory post-run stretches, but are we doing enough to aid recovery?

"Running causes the muscles to contract repeatedly so the fibres end up tight and sometimes misaligned, like hair that needs combing," says Connors. "If you don't help restore them to their resting length, the next time you run they will still be tight. This could have a knock-on effect on your risk of injury."

Over time and in the absence of stretching, muscle fibres can permanently lose length through a process called adaptive shortening, which will alter the function of the joints they attach to.

Your recovery strategy

Ideally, you should stretch the back and all the major lower body muscle groups after a run. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds.

Pushed for time? If you only have five minutes to spare, says Connors, focus on stretching the hip flexors, calves and hamstrings. "Stretch out the hip flexors first," she advises. "The more the hips release, the more the hamstrings will do the same."

Discover three key stretches to help relieve muscle tightness.

Cool-Down

Don't underestimate the effects of slowing down gradually

When you run, the blood vessels in your legs dilate to accommodate the increased blood flow. That's why, if you stop too suddenly, you can cause blood to pool in the legs, leaving you feeling dizzy or shaky.

Coming to a more gradual stop by slowing your pace for a few minutes helps prevent this, but there's no evidence that it will reduce muscle soreness afterwards.

In one South African study, subjects were assigned a workout to instigate sore leg muscles. Some did a cool-down (walking slowly for 10 minutes) while others simply stopped. There was no difference in levels of reported muscle soreness afterwards.

That said, a cool-down marks the transition between running and getting back to your day. A study from Atlanta found that performing a cool-down enhanced the overall exercise experience by allowing time to take stock of and reflect upon your achievements.

Your recovery strategy

If you've been running at a faster pace or for a prolonged period, take a few minutes to slow down gradually, allowing your heart rate and breathing frequency to return to normal. 

Compression Gear

Slip on compression tights post-run to reduce aches and pains

The fact that a recent study by Indiana University, US, concluded that compression clothing had no significant effect on athletic performance hasn't stopped many a runner donning full-length tights or knee-high socks.

And the good news is that science is proving to be a little more promising on the benefits of the big squeeze on recovery. In other words, donning compression gear after exercise rather than during it.

Research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that graduated compression tights (where the compression is greatest at the ankle and diminishes further up the leg) hastened recovery after a period of downhill walking by allowing faster cell repair.

Vanessa Davies, the physiologist who conducted the study, found reduced levels of creatine kinase (an enzyme that indicates muscle damage), 24 and 48 hours after subjects performed repeated jumps from a height, when they recovered in compression tights.

In other research from Ball State University, US, use of compression gear following maximal exercise prevented loss of range of motion, reduced swelling and promoted the recovery of force production.

Davies' study subjects, in common with those from the Ball State University study, reported that they felt that putting on compression tights helped reduce muscle soreness. "The psychological element could be as strong a factor as the physical," says Davies.

Your recovery strategy

After a shower and stretch, slip (OK, squeeze) on a pair of compression tights or socks. You can even put them on under your jeans thanks to the tight fit, and no one will be any the wiser. Some athletes even sleep in them.

Discover our pick of some of the best compression gear.

Ice

Take the plunge to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow

Running causes lots of tiny tears in the muscles and tendons - and lowering body temperature shunts blood away from the area, reducing inflammation. But as far as scientific evidence suggests, you don't need to plunge yourself into an ice bath, à la Radcliffe.

"As long as it's cold enough to reduce your body temperature, it'll do fine," says Connors. Recent research found that immersion into 10C water after 'all-out' exercise did not improve performance in subsequent exercise bouts, but the subjects did report that they felt better, and a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that cold water immersion and contrast therapy (alternating between hot and cold water) aided recovery from repeated hard efforts, while complete rest and hot water immersion did not.

Meanwhile, research from New Zealand suggests that 'cool' to 'body temperature' water may provide the best range for recovery, citing increased blood flow (along with transportation of nutrients and removal of waste products) as a potential benefit.

Your recovery strategy

Hold the shower nozzle over your leg muscles, gradually reducing the water temperature. Or, for the lower legs, a bucket full of cold water works a treat on sore achilles and plantar fascias. Ice is good for specific injuries, but not necessary for general recovery.