The Crazy World of Recovery

As a kid, I spent my summers running AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) track. Practice took place each afternoon with meets on the weekends. The summer heat and humidity were brutal and our coach stressed the need to recover after each practice. He educated us young athletes on the importance of eating a good dinner to refuel our muscles, drinking plenty of water, relaxing, and getting to bed early to allow our bodies to recover from the training. It was simple advice that made sense and was fairly easy to implement. 

My routine was simple. Immediately following practice, I sat around the track hanging out and chatting with my teammates. All the while drinking water and eating a banana. Once home, I would have a big dinner and then head to bed early. I swear I slept 10 hrs a night back then. 

That was in the late ‘90s. As I matured into a competitive high schooler, the recovery world started to change. The first “recovery tool” I can remember was the “Stick”. All the running stores had them and all the runners wanted one. We were told this self-massage stick would help us recover faster and make us less sore. I remember begging my mom to buy one. She did and I used that stick faithfully following each practice and especially after races. The funny thing was, I didn’t notice much difference. That didn’t deter me, I kept at it thinking maybe I just wasn’t doing enough.

The next recovery tool to pop on the scene was the sports recovery drink. Back then Endurox was all the rage. Again, every running store carried it and all the runners wanted it. The claim was that normal food wasn’t “best” for recovery. Instead, in order to promote optimal recovery runners needed to consume a specific ratio of carbs to protein. Of course, I went back to Mom and told her I just had to have it. This was really going to help me reach my potential! It was pretty pricey so I conserved it for only after really hard runs and workouts. But again, I really didn’t notice much of a difference over my go-to post-run pop-tart. Cinnamon brown sugar, please.

A similar pattern continued as I moved on to collegiate track and cross country. In addition to the original advice to relax, eat well and sleep a lot, my list of “recovery tools” grew to include self-massage with the stick, post-run recovery drink, regular ice baths, deep tissue massage, and many post-run sessions lying on my back with feet elevated as high as I could get them up the wall. All this recovery was getting pretty time-consuming and stressful. I was having trouble fitting all this into my day and still have time to enjoy my life. 

Eventually, I realized that all this recovery was really just stressing me out. It was hard enough to put in the time to train, let alone add in all these recovery interventions. I also wasn’t convinced it was doing much since I didn’t really notice a difference on days where I couldn’t fit in the recovery. So I stopped. I left the stick in the closet, saved a ton of money not having to buy the recovery drink, and felt less stressed. I went back to my old routine of focusing on relaxing, eating and drinking well, and sleeping more. I continued to train hard and set PR’s.

More recently, with the advent of social media, the recovery world has once again exploded. I am constantly getting ads with professional athletes promoting the latest gadget, CBD oil, or special supplement. On Instagram you find influencers posting pics in their fancy pneumatic compression pants or using the latest thera-gun claiming amazing benefits.

The focus has shifted away from the basics. Resting and relaxing post-run, eating healthy foods, and sleeping well are too simple. The world seems to want fancy recovery tools -the quick fixes and instant relief. But what does science have to say about all these new toys and interventions? Do they actually help us recover faster?

In her book, Good To Go, Christie Aschwanden did a fantastic job answering that question. She thoroughly reviews the literature and puts the recovery tools to the test. From foam rolling to ice baths, she covers it all.  The results are no big surprise – there is very little evidence to support that these tools significantly improve recovery. I highly recommend you read the book for more details but she sums it up nicely with this:

“I’ve come to think that different recovery modalities just represent variations on the same few approaches to recovery — soothing your muscles and body so you feel better (even if nothing is actually changing in a physiological sense), providing a ritual for taking care of yourself that gives you a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy (what many people think of as being proactive), and finally, creating a formalized way to stop everything else and help you focus on resting.”

The bottom line is that the basics should form the foundation of your recovery. 

Sleep is arguably the most important recovery tool out there and it’s free. Studies have shown that sleeping less than 8 hours a night doubles your risk of injury (Milewski et al 2014). If you’d like more information on the value of sleep I would encourage you to read Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep

Secondly, rest and relaxation are essential for recovery. Training puts physical stress on our bodies but it’s not only the physical stress that we need to recover from. Stress is stress and our body doesn’t care if it’s physical or mental stress. So, it is important to make sure you have a way to unwind post exercise. This can be sitting around chatting with friends or putting your feet up on the sofa and watching Ted Lasso. 

Last but not least, eat some good food and drink water. I’m not a dietitian and don’t play one on the internet, so my advice here is simple – eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. And don’t be afraid to occasionally eat some “junk” food as a reward. Remember, all things in moderation. 

If you aren’t doing these things well I wouldn’t even think about spending money on the “fancy” stuff. Nail down the basics first then you can consider adding more to your routine. Keep in mind that adding more has the potential to add more stress to your life and that’s the opposite of recovering.

Running coach and researcher, Steven Magness, said it well, “If I’m trying to get into ‘recovery mode,’ I’m essentially trying to turn off. But if now all of a sudden I’m rushing to the cryosauna or I’m jumping into the ice bath and if I’m worrying about spending the next 30 mins going through a stretching and rolling routine, those are all active things where my mind is engaged.” 

Instead of shutting down and recovering, the recovery is turning into a stressor. Just like what happened to me back in college. Nowadays, I plan to stick to my middle school ways – thanks coach!

SUMMARY:

Recovery equals rest and rebuilding. If you want to improve your recovery, sleep 8+ hrs a night, eat healthy food and find a way to relax and unwind that works for you. No, it’s not sexy but it works. For me, my favorite post-morning run recovery tool is relaxing with friends, eating a burrito followed by a cinnamon roll, and getting to bed early.

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