Running is a mentally and physically demanding sport. It not only tests the limits of the mind, it also puts the body through continuous cycles of physical breakdown and repair. For the body to perform at an optimal physical level and avoid injury, appropriate recovery must be taken to rebuild the muscle and other tissue that is broken down during exercise. The amount of time it takes and the degree to which muscles and other tissue recover is dependent on a multitude of variables including age, genetics, fitness level, intensity of exercise, nutrition, and hydration, just to name a few. While several of these recovery variables are out of our control, there are a number of variables that can be influenced by our behavior. Professional runners know this fact well and are therefore always looking for the best ways to enhance recovery. After all, a race can literally come down to fractions of seconds, so any legal performance boost, no matter how small, matters. Below are a few tools that many of the top runners in the world are using to rebuild faster and more completely between sessions.
1. 3:1 or 4:1 Carb to Protein Ratio Recovery Fuel.
It’s no secret that the body burns calories during exercise. More specifically, the body burns glucose in the muscles, glucose in the blood, glucose converted from stored glycogen, and in some cases, ketone bodies. Glucose present in the muscles and blood is the first energy source that the body uses and it is also the quickest to be depleted. Once muscle and blood glucose is depleted, the body then turns to glycogen stored in the liver and muscles. Once the body runs through its glycogen stores, the process of gluconeogenesis is ramped up and the body also begins using a higher percentage of ketone bodies (a product of broken down fat) for energy. Because glucose (from muscles, blood, and broken down glycogen) is the body’s preferred energy source and the energy source it is most efficient at metabolizing, when the body runs out of all glucose (including glucose stored as glycogen) and enters into a “fat burning” state, fatigue increases and performance suffers (i.e. you “hit the wall”). Thus, having large glycogen stores that take longer to burn through is a competitive advantage when running long.
Since running depletes glucose and glycogen stores, it is important to replenish those stores with carbohydrates after running to perform optimally on the next run. It is important to note, however, that the timing of when carbohydrates are consumed after exercise as well as the ratio of carbs to protein in the fuel source determine how effective your glycogen uptake will be. According to this article, consuming carbohydrates within 15 minutes of exercise can increase the body’s glycogen uptake by up to 50%. Additionally, the ratio of carbohydrates and protein in the fuel source chosen can impact glycogen absorption and muscle synthesis. A fuel source too high in protein will block the optimal absorption of carbohydrates; however, a fuel source too low in protein will delay the optimal onset on muscle synthesis. Scientists have researched this topic extensively and found that the optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio in a post exercise fuel source is 3g or 4g of carbohydrate to 1g of protein (source). Many products, including chocolate milk, either naturally contain this ratio or have been developed to meet this 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. See what product made our top pick below.
Top Pick: 1 scoop OWYN vanilla protein powder + 7tsp turbinado sugar (Shop Here). OWYN vanilla protein powder is a plant based powder containing all of the essential amino acids without any artificial ingredients, common allergens, or sugar alcohols. OWYN also contains Omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics, giving it an extra nutritional advantage over most protein supplements. Combining one scoop of OWYN protein with 7tsp of turbinado sugar creates a carb to protein ratio that is between that 3:1 and 4:1, making it a great option for post exercise fuel.
2. Deep Tissue Massage
Deep tissue massage has been shown to benefit recovery in a number of ways including increased oxygen rich blood flow, decreased delayed onset muscle soreness, increased range of motion, and improved flexibility (source, source). Deep tissue massage can also play a role in helping to prevent injury. Again, going back to the body’s natural cycle of breakdown and repair, it’s not uncommon during the body’s rebuilding phase for fascia (the body’s connective tissue that surrounds muscles) to form adhesions (overlapping tissue – aka knots) when repairing itself after exercise. The formation of fascial adhesions thus limits the ability of the muscles to fully lengthen, increasing the risk of injury by placing unnatural tension at both ends of the muscle where it connects to either tendon or bone. Deep tissue massage, however, provides targeted pressure to fascial adhesions that can help to stimulate the repair of fascial adhesions, and consequentially, help avoid injuries.
While seeing a massage therapist on a regular basis may be a luxury professional athletes are willing and able to receive, for non-professional athletes, massage therapy can be both inconvenient to a busy schedule and quite pricy. Therefore, an excellent alternative and/or complement to seeing a massage therapist for deep tissue massage is the use of a foam roller (i.e. self-massage). Just like receiving a deep tissue massage from a massage therapist, foam rolling has been linked to increased oxygen rich blood flow in muscles (source), decreased delayed onset muscle soreness (source), increased range of motion (source), and improved flexibility (source). While foam rolling lacks the benefits of touch and intense localized pressure that only a massage therapist can provide, foam rolling with a foam roller that is able to reach and target muscles precisely offers an effective and cost efficient alternative and/or complement to receiving a deep tissue massage from a massage therapist.
Top Pick: Rollga Foam Roller (Shop Here). Rollga Foam Rollers are engineered to effectively reach and target every muscle while avoiding bone and tendon structure. Rollga Foam Rollers are contoured to fit the human body comfortably and make it easy apply pressure to those hard to reach spots.
3. Compression Clothing
The idea of compression increasing blood flow and benefiting recovery is not a new concept. The use of compression is an established practice in the medical community and is actually one of the first remedies typically suggested for muscle injury or fatigue (as the “C” in “RICE” – rest, ice, compression, elevation). The use of compression clothing to boost athletic performance, however, is a somewhat newer take. With all of the information flying around from compression clothing brands promoting their products and the vast array of compression products available, it’s difficult to know which facts and products are legitimate and which are merely gimmicks. While the use of compression clothing is safe in most circumstances, there are times where it is more beneficial to wear compression clothing than others. The most ‘bang for your buck’ time to wear compression clothing is post exercise for recovery (source). Compression clothing forces blood vessels to become more narrow, speeding blood travel and thus oxygen travel. The transportation of oxygen to muscles is particularly important during recovery as that is when muscles are repairing themselves and removing waste products like lactic acid.
Wearing compression socks while running is a popular trend that has taken hold within the running community, and while wearing compression clothing during a run doesn’t diminish running performance, it also doesn’t benefit performance (source). Therefore, the choice to wear compression socks while running really just comes down to personal preference. Wearing compression socks (or full length tights) post run, however, is worth the extra arm and leg workout it takes to put them on for the sake of faster recovery.
Top pick: CEP compression tights (Shop Here). CEP is the leader in the medical grade compression clothing. CEP compression tights provide a tapered compression up the legs that is designed to enhance blood flow and stimulate recovery.
4. Compression Massage
Yet another tool many of the top professional runners and other athletes in the world are using to boost recovery is the compression massage device. Similar to both deep tissue massage and compression clothing, compression massage devices see most of their recovery aid in the form of increased blood flow. Where compression massage devices differ slightly from massage and compression, however, is their enhanced ability to passively clear metabolites such as lactic acid from the muscles (source). Compression massage devices work by compressing the extremities starting away from the heart, pulsing and holding that compression, and then continuing that compression toward the heart. The movement of the compression towards the heart mimics the body’s natural transport of deoxygenated blood toward the heart, in a sense flushing the deoxygenated blood and metabolites toward the heart and liver respectively where blood is then oxygenated and metabolites are recycled or disposed of. Compression massage devices have also been shown to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (source), providing yet another reason why professional runners and other athletes are using this tool.
Top pick: Normatec Pulse Pro 2.0 (Shop Here). Normatec compression massage products are the industry leaders in compression massage research and products. The Normatec Pulse Pro 2.0 uses high quality, long lasting materials and features a compact battery powered air compression that make using the product convenient.
5. Electrolyte Beverage
Hydration plays an important role in just about every aspect of physical performance. Recovery is no exception. While being properly hydrated during exercise is important (just a 2% loss in body weight due to dehydration is equivalent to a 20% loss in physical performance (source)), hydrating after exercise is also important for three primary reasons. First, rehydrating after exercise restores blood volume. During exercise, water in the body is lost through both sweat and respiration, causing blood to thicken. Rehydrating the body after exercise restores blood to its more freely flowing state, increasing both the amount of oxygen delivered to muscles and the removal of metabolites formed during exercise. Secondly, properly hydrating after exercise aids with digestion and therefore the restoration of glycogen stores and the initiation of muscle synthesis (source). Finally, restoring fluids lost during exercise benefits recovery by speeding up protein synthesis through the transport of nutrients to muscles and waste away from muscles (source). In short, hydration is the key that aids in unlocking the benefits of all the other recovery tools mentioned above. Without adequate post exercise hydration, blood flow, nutrient absorption, metabolite flushing, and muscle elasticity are all negatively impacted.
The type of hydration beverage chosen post exercise also has an important impact on recovery. During exercise, the body loses both water and electrolytes through sweat. Replenishing water alone does not give the body everything it needs to properly restore electrical nerve signals, muscle function, and other biochemical processes. Thus, choosing a hydration beverage with the correct amount and balance of electrolytes is important when rehydrating the body to enhance recovery.
Top pick: SOS hydration (Shop Here). SOS has the correct amount and balance of electrolytes and carbohydrates to make it as effective as an IV drip. SOS is also low in sugar, containing only the sugar necessary to activate the sodium-glucose co-transport in the small intestine – a mechanism that allows the body to absorb 3x more water than water alone.