Let’s talk about recovery. Ultramarathon runners run big miles, lots of vert, and tough races and they quickly learn that hard training and racing requires good recovery. Without recovery we can’t reap the benefits of a great training plan with hard workouts. At best our fitness will suffer and at worst we’ll get injured or sick. When athletes think about recovery, often what comes to mind are products marketed as helping recovery like supplements, recovery drinks, pneumatic compression boots, cryotherapy chambers, percussion massagers, etc. But do these really help recovery and boost fitness? What about old school recovery tools like sleep and whole food nutrition? What role do recovery runs play and how and when are they best used?
Every training session creates stress on the body (either muscular, cardiovascular or both) and require a period of recovery for the body to respond in a positive way and super compensate. An easy way to think about this is to imagine going to the gym for the first time in months and doing heavy weighted back squats. You might feel good doing them but the next day your leg muscles are super sore, and you cannot walk up or down stairs without help from your arms. And this soreness might last up to a week. If you were to go back to the gym the next day and do heavy squats again, you wouldn’t be able to lift as much weight and do as many reps as the first day because you haven’t allowed your muscles to properly recover. If you keep going back each day that week and do squats, you’re going to feel weaker each day and might end up getting injured.
While not as obvious, the same thing can happen with endurance workouts. When you do a running workout, your cardiovascular system gets stressed and needs time to recover. If you don’t allow yourself the appropriate time to recover, you will get weaker (slower) and often sick.
How much recovery time do you need after each workout? It depends on the type of workout and your fitness and physical makeup (athletes with more type 2 fast twitch muscle fibers will need longer to recover). In general, the more intense the training session and the more it requires type 2 muscle fibers, the longer recovery period is needed. Here are some guidelines for the average recovery times for well-trained endurance athletes:
That’s why ultra-runners should space strength and zone 4 and 5 workouts 2-3 days apart to allow optimal recovery. Zone 1 and 2 runs can be done daily for almost every runner and for some runners twice a day.
What’s the best way to gauge whether you are taking enough time between runs? There are tools like checking morning resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV), but the best way is still by feel. If your muscles are sore at all or you’re tired and don’t feel the spring in your step during your warmup run, it’s best to not do a hard workout that day. Yes, sometimes coaches and training plans have back-to-back hard days or long runs, and these can play important roles in a training block, but most of the time to get the training benefit from a strength workout, hill workout, or Zone 3, 4, or 5 run you want to be fully rested. If you’re not fully rested, you are going to end up doing these workouts at a lower intensity than planned and not gaining the desired performance gains or might even get injured or sick. Some athletes will only be able to do 1 quality workout a week, most athletes can do 2, and some athletes can do 3. Zone 1 and 2 runs can be done daily by many ultra-runners either during an endurance training block or between hard zone 3, 4, 5, and strength workouts.
Every workout produces a physiological stress response in your body of inflammatory fluid containing neutrophils, macrophages, satellite cells, and cytokines. This inflammatory response helps trigger the positive adaptation to the training stress. Anything we do to reduce this inflammatory response will blunt your body’s adaptation – meaning less fitness gains. We also see an increase in testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate, estradiol, growth hormone, and cortisol to endurance exercise which all help the body adapt and get stronger in response to the demands put on it. This is important to think about in terms of what “recovery tools” are going to help and which are going to hinder your body’s adaptation to exercise. It’s been shown in studies that ice, cold water immersion, and cryotherapy decrease inflammation which you now understand is counterproductive. Compression clothing and pneumatic compression boots also decrease inflammation which will have negative effects on your performance gains from a workout.
Why are these devices so popular and is there ever a time and place to use them? They are popular because they make money. The people promoting these ideas are making money from selling products or books or from ads on websites, YouTube videos, or social media. People are always looking for a magic bullet or elixir and it’s easy to fall prey to things that sound so promising. There is a time and place where these anti-inflammation tools can be beneficial (but only in the short term, they are always negative in the long term) and that is when you are doing a race like the Golden Trail World Series stage race or riding the Tour de France. When you are racing hard day after day after day you don’t have time to fully recover naturally, and reducing inflammation after each stage and before the next might help your body perform better. I would not recommend doing this on a regular basis however, as your chance of injury greatly increases as your body is depleted and muscles are repeatedly stressed. There is no advantage to doing this during normal training.
Supplements marketed to help recovery are for the most part not effective and a waste of money. It pays to read the actual scientific studies rather than flashy headlines of marketing campaigns. An example is curcumin, a polyphenol extracted from turmeric, which has been marketed for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory affects. Supplement companies will claim curcumin decreases exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD) as shown in decreased delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and decreased creatine kinase (CK) in the blood. CK is a sign of muscle damage. What they don’t say is that it does not actually decrease muscle damage, only the signs of muscle damage. Curcumin interferes with the release of CK from the muscle cell membranes so there is less CK in the blood but not less actual EIMD. The same is true for DOMS as curcumin decreases the feeling of muscle damage but not actual muscle damage.
The best supplements to boost recovery? Whole foods. Eating a large variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, pulses, whole grains, lean proteins, and other whole unprocessed foods are the most essential part of an athlete’s diet. No supplement will make as big an impact on your performance (and health) as a balanced whole food diet. Making sure to eat sufficient calories including sufficient carbohydrates before, during, and after training will have big impacts on your performance. Getting sufficient protein during your day is also important to help your body rebuild stronger after each workout.
Sleep is also essential for recovery and performance. Track your sleep for a week and then try to increase your nightly sleep the following week and notice how you feel. You might notice yourself recovering faster and running better. Studies have shown that athletes who get less than 8 hours of sleep a night are 1.7 times more likely to get injured than athletes who get more than 8 hours of sleep a night!
Lastly, let’s discuss the recovery run and what it really is and what purpose it plays in ultramarathon training. After a hard training session (intervals, tempo, long run etc.) the following day you want to allow your body to recover and get stronger from the previous days’ workout. Resting and taking a day off from training is one way to do that and for any new runner that is what I’d recommend. More experienced runners can help speed up their recovery by doing a recovery run. The purpose of a recovery run is not to boost cardiovascular fitness but to help your body recover. Increasing blood flow to your muscles, warming up your muscles, and helping increase lymphatic flow are all major benefits of a recovery run. The key is running very slow and very easy. Recovery runs should be zone 1 and after a recovery run you should feel looser, less sore, less tired, and have more spring in your step. If you don’t feel these positive changes, you are either running too fast or would be better off using cross training for recovery. Great options for cross training are cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, hiking, walking, yoga, or Egoscue. Again, with all of these activities you want to go very easy and should feel much better after the exercise than before. Most ultrarunners would do good with a 30-minute recovery run and high mileage experienced runners might do well with a 45–60-minute recovery run.
A great example of how easy and slow recovery runs should be is to look at what previous men’s marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge does. His race pace for a marathon is 4:35/mile and he runs his recovery runs at 8:30-10:30/mile pace. Twice as slow as his race pace! For the average ultrarunner who’s race pace is 12min/mile, it’s not necessary to run a 24min/mile pace, but a recovery run should be much slower than marathon race pace.
In summary, ultramarathon runners should be doing 1 to 3 harder workouts a week with very slow easy recovery runs the day after, focusing on eating enough calories and lots of carbohydrates and protein from whole food sources, getting 8+ hours of sleep a night, and not worrying about spending money on expensive recovery tools or supplements.
Matt Whitehead coaches ultramarathon runners at Ultra Run Coaching and helps athletes and non-athletes become pain free at Oregon Exercise Therapy. When not coaching athletes or doing posture alignment therapy, Matt can be found trail running and mountain biking around the Pacific NW with friends and his dog Lucky.
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