Post-Run Recovery Tips
September 30th, 2010

As distance runners, we live in a constant cycle of destruction and adaptation. In turns, we push our bodies to the edge of their ability and then wait patiently for them to heal into a slightly stronger, faster state of homeostasis. In a nutshell, that's what training is.

While vast details of the specific processes and bodily systems fill an impressive stack of textbooks in the office of Eugene family practice physician and acupuncturist Tom Etges, he assures me the basic process of training is fairly straightforward. In our training we strain ourselves to go longer or faster than is comfortable. In so doing, we deplete our various fuel sources and cause microscopic tears in our muscle tissue. Stimulated by the damage, our bodies whir into a fury of adaptation. Our stores open for maximum refueling, and our veins deliver white blood cells to repair the micro tears.

It's not, therefore, in our workouts that we become better athletes, but in the time between them. Neglecting to take sufficient rest or to answer our depleted bodies' needs not only limits our improvements, but can start a spiral of a very different sort. "It happens at least once a year," says Lauren Fleshman, who was the U.S. champion at 5,000m in 2007. "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."

Fellow runners, consider this your kick in the butt.


The first steps to recovering well actually take place on your run. Limiting unnecessary damage gives you a head start in preparing for your next workout. Fleshman concentrates on avoiding "body shock." "You want your workouts to look like a bell curve, moving smoothly from a walk to the intended running pace, and back," she says. "I'll take 4-5 minutes to work up to a steady run, and if I'm doing a workout, I'll incorporate something to bridge the gap between it and my jog, either strides or long accelerations."

Ian Dobson, 2008 Olympian at 5,000m (and, full disclosure, my husband), views each of his runs as part stress, part recovery.

I'll use a hilly run to recover from the tedium of a flat run, and a flat run to recover from the stress of a hilly run," he says. "Different terrains and intensities work different systems and muscles. Most of our injuries are from repetition and from overuse. I try to incorporate as much variety as I can to avoid over-fatiguing myself in one specific way."

After you've finished your run and allowed yourself to slowly work down that bell curve, you'll arrive at your greatest opportunity to accelerate recovery, or to dig yourself into a hole. At that moment of nutritional depletion, your system is at its most absorbent. "Getting in the right things right after I finish seems to be an insurance policy," Fleshman says. "Even if I'm not doing everything I should be, if I at least chug a drink or cram down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big bottle of water, it seems to give me my best chance of feeling OK the next day."

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 burnt. 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 and mine to keep a recovery drink on hand, either in your car or gym bag.


After the two hours immediately following your run your body's metabolic processes will slow down, but the recovery process continues. During this time one of the most important factors is constant hydration.

"Everybody gets bored with hydration," Whittaker says. "Like, 'Yeah, yeah, I've heard it, give me something new.' But your muscles were meant to be bathed in water, in fluid. There should be no resistance in their movement." He throws his head back in exasperation. "Dehydration is the biggest wrench you can throw into that system, because if the muscles aren't free-floating, lubricated, they start to adhere to each other, and then it's a tug of war, and the movement that should be effortless is suddenly a struggle due to dehydration and byproducts.

"The muscles should be like putty. Elastic, malleable, pliable. When a person is nutritionally imbalanced or they're dehydrated their tissue will be fibrose, chord-like, ropey. I end up being the last person in the loop, but things have been wrong for a while before they come to me, and sometimes the answer is in the fridge. I'll think, 'You don't need therapy, you just need to do some maintenance.'"


At any time, whether before or after or nowhere near your run, you can use these techniques to give your recovery a boost.

Fleshman powernaps. "When I was in college and had a busy life I made sure to find 15-30 minutes a day to shut my eyes and relax. Even if I didn't fall asleep, taking the time to unwind was really important." Whittaker agrees. "You see people stressed out with their shoulders up to their ears," he says. "That sort of contraction is happening all over the body, an emotional stress that develops a physical manifestation." If your muscles are clenched, they're not recovering, so take some time to relax.

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.

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.

Do your maintenance, recover well, and run fast, runners.


You've squeezed your workout into your lunch hour with minutes to spare. What's the best investment of those last precious moments? Here's what three elite runners do.

Shalane Flanagan changes into something warm and dry. If you let your muscles get cold immediately after a hard workout, you'll miss out on your body's healing metabolic activity. Keep them warm and loose until you find a few moments to stretch each of your major muscle groups.

Lauren Fleshman refuels. Pack a drink in the car and begin refueling immediately. Ideally, take in a drink that contains a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. Justin Whittaker, D.C., recommends a drink with sodium, calcium, 250 mg of magnesium, 50 mg of zinc, 100 mg of potassium and branch chain amino acids. Read labels carefully, as most recovery drinks don't provide these vital electrolytes and proteins.

Ian Dobson 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.


"There's nothing inherently wrong with inflammation," says Tom Etges, a family physician and acupuncturist based in Eugene, Ore. Yes, you read that right, ibuprofen junkies. "The body is a lot smarter and more elegant than we give it credit for, and up to a point it will repair the damage if you let it," Etges explains. "There's a growing concern in the medical community that overuse of an anti-inflammatory medication can, over time, interrupt the normal healing process. It can also cause a false sense of relief, so you're more likely to challenge yourself before you're recovered and ready."

Instead of forcing out potentially helpful inflammation, aid your body in flushing out superfluous inflammation. Drink plenty of water, elevate your legs above your heart for a few minutes whenever you get a chance, take an ice bath and consume more anti-inflammatory foods. Whole grains, healthy fats from avocados and nuts, beans, leafy greens, and wild-caught fish promote an anti-inflammatory response in the body, but don't prevent local, potentially beneficial, reactionary inflammation.

By Julia Lucas
As featured in the September 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine


JULIA LUCAS is a member of the Oregon Track Club Elite and has run 15:33 for 5,000m.