[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I'm sitting in an oversized armchair in Mike's cabin in Idyllwild, CA. We came up for a weekend to get away from the crowds and the traffic and the monotony. Today is Saturday and today feels so utterly different than Friday. Instead of obsessing over work, I'm free to let my mind wander, read (right now I'm reading Maid, and I highly recommend), and run for hours in the mountains. This morning, Mike dropped me off near a fire road on the edge of town and I ran nearly 22 miles through mud and streams, up a mountain, and back. The landscape up here is rugged and breathtaking; a perfect gem of a mountain town situated just above the fray of Los Angeles.
I'm sitting in an oversized armchair with a fire quietly burning behind me, watching a dense fog roll over the hillside and settle among the tall, towering pines. I'm sitting here, resting. We just ate a big dinner, and I'm nursing a large bottle of water. I recently increased my weekly mileage, and with the added load on my body, rest and recovery are more important than ever.
I'm not a professional runner, nor am I a physical therapist, and I am certainly not a doctor. The last time I saw both a physical therapist and a doctor I was abjectly underwhelmed, so I'm not mad that I am neither. But, I own no title that makes me qualified to tell you how to recover from a hard effort, but I do know how I recover best, so that's what this is about.
Sleep: Seriously, go to sleep. Most adults need at least seven hours, and most athletes need even more. Getting sub-par sleep for a few nights consecutively can set back recovery, decrease performance, increase the risk of injury, and increase stress hormones like cortisol. Not only that, but a lack of sleep might also make you cranky and increase cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. After a hard effort, I usually go to bed early. After a hard race, I prioritize sleep for an entire week. Our bodies repair at rest, after all.
Eat: I've written about protein before, but it's difficult to underscore how important protein is for muscular repair and recovery. Consuming high-quality animal protein is also the best way to consume amino acids, which are the molecules that combine to form proteins. When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. The human body uses amino acids to help the body break down food, grow, repair body tissue, and more. My favorite sources of protein are organic ground beef or bison, wild caught salmon, chicken breast, tuna, and steak. In addition to consuming protein, it's also important to consume high-quality carbs (sweet potatoes, bananas), greens, and water/coconut water. Nobody ever said eating healthy was cheap, but there are ways to reduce food costs without compromising on quality.
Yoga and/or Mobility Work: Once a week, I go to hot yoga to sweat out all my sins. When I leave yoga, I feel two things: mildly dehydrated, and loose as a rubber band. Two to three times each week, I strength train, incorporating a mix of functional movements, heavy weights, and mobility work. Mobility is about more than just being flexible; its about sustaining a full range of motion. Per Canadian Running Magazine, mobility affects how you run, because if your muscles and joints can't move through an entire range of motion, your stride will be less efficient and you'll likely end up injured. In order to run well, you need to have good mobility through your feet and ankles, knees, hips and spine.
Supplement: I'm not huge on supplements, but I do take a few that help me stay healthy and recover better. Mike adds collogen and turmeric to our protein shakes, which help with muscle recovery, joint pain, and inflammation. I have also gone through phases of taking BCAAs after hard efforts, and BCAAs allegedly ease muscle soreness, decrease fatigue, and prevent muscle wasting. I currently take an iron supplement a few days each week, a multivitamin, and Flo-a vitamin for women to help with symptoms of PMS. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it's important to do your own due diligence when selecting which vitamins you ingest. I also highly recommend getting your blood tested, either by your doctor or through a company like Inside Tracker, to determine which nutrients you may need to supplement.
Move: As my friend Paige always says, motion is lotion. I like following up long runs with shorter runs (roughly half the distance), starting slow and letting my body ease into it. On days when I don't run, I do yoga or I strength train, and I always end my strength sessions with a long, juicy stretch. Tonight after dinner, Mike and I walked around the town center and I let my body slowly unglue itself. Active recovery involves low-intensity exercise (walking, swimming, jazzercize) done after higher-intensity workouts. Active recovery increases blood flow to your muscles and helps to reduce muscle soreness.
Sometimes, I see photos or videos of people going to elaborate lengths to recover-from jumping in ice baths to spending time in saunas to sitting in recovery boots or getting bi-weekly massages. I don't know if any of this helps, because I don't currently have the time, money, or inclination to add anything to my routine, but if you like a daily ice bath, more power to you.
P.S. Get some compression tights to help you feel like you're recovering here, read about the benefits of ice baths for recovery here, or read about the benefits of using a sauna here.