Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Recovery Tips - What Works for Me

I had some requests for "recovery tips" after the Miwok 100k, and thought I would share what I wrote in case y'all missed it in the comments. I obsess about recovery because I like to race so much throughout the year, and I now have it down to a routine that works well for me. If you have any other tips, please share by commenting below! I'm always open to new ideas.

The general guideline for recovery is "one day off for every mile raced". Unfortunately that doesn't work very well if you're doing ultras (otherwise we would be on the couch most of the year). I prefer Hal Higdon's framework that refers to the recovery period as a "reverse taper", where you take a few days off, then slowly build back up to your peak (instead of tapering down for a race). Once I got my recovery process dialed, I have found I can recovery from a race in about 4-8 days then slowly build back up over 1-2 weeks.

After experimenting with various recovery techniques, I have found three easy things you can do to immediately improve recovery. I've also found a few time-consuming tricks that improve my recovery by 20-25%, so I will share those too.

Three Easy Recovery Tips

Some of these tips may be obvious to you die-hards who grew up with high school and collegiate coaches. I started my athletic career fairly late in life, so I learned most of these the hard way (lots of groaning and moaning). Take it from me - those coaches have you do these for a reason! The simple tips:

1. Respect the warm up. I'm probably the last one of the planet to figure this out, but it turns out that warm ups are important! By spending 5-10 minutes before a race or hard workout, you can smoothly transition your body and improve your recovery time. I play a mind game where I try to warm up as slowly as possible, Tai Chi style. Start by walking, then walk a bit faster, slowly building up to your race pace over 10 minutes. It's a test of patience (particularly on cold mornings), but is effective is slowly letting your blood flow increase and warming up your muscles. If you skip the warm up (ie, "this race is long enough I will just warm up along the way"), you're adding 12-24 hours to your recovery time.

2. Respect the warm down. When you cross the finish line, you are NOT done! Jog a bit, slow down to a fast walk, and ease out of the race. I often forget this one, since I'm thinking about nothing but "beer" and "chair" by the time I finish. But do it right, and it's worth 24 hours in recovery time.

3. In the first 15 minutes after a race, focus on the essentials - food, water, warmth. Grab some water/sports drink as you warm down, and take in some calories (glucose is fastest, carbs and proteins are essential). Your body needs fuel to repair your muscles, and is optimized for calorie absorption right after your race. Once you have warmed down, immediately change into warm, dry clothes. Get all these right, and you dramatically reduce your recovery time, and the risk of getting sick after a race.

Easy, right? Then be sure to do all three!

Other Recovery Tips

Below are some other tips that have worked well for me. I'm a big fan of "listening to my body", in that after 24 hours after a race I only take ibuprofen if necessary (a flight to NYC, for example). This gives me a chance to check my heart rate, feel my muscles and joints closely, and get an idea of how fast I am recovering. Remember, you earned this pain!

Here are some recovery tips that have worked for me:

1. Ice bath. Yes, it's painful, but I think it's worth 1-2 days of recovery. The sooner after your race (and warm down), the better. If there is a creek or lake nearby, wade in up your navel and soak it in for 10 minutes. Otherwise, get the ice bath going in your hotel room/bathroom when you get home.

2. Epsom salts. Epsom salts (which can be purchased at any grocery/drug store) help pull lactic acid from your muscles into your bloodstream. Add two cups to your bath (ice or otherwise), and give yourself a light massage while soaking for 10-15 minutes. This is worth a full day of recovery for me.

3. Check your resting heart rate every morning. I have used a heart rate monitor (HRM) for a few years now, and one the best uses I have found is checking your resting heart rate in the morning. I know my resting heart rate is about 38 beats per minute (I know it sounds low, but it's mostly genetic...thanks mom and dad!). The day after Miwok, I woke up with a heart rate of 45. 10-15% variance is normal; anything more, and I am definitely not working out that day. For me, it's typical for the HRM to keep me from working out for 1-3 days.

4. Light swimming. Regular swimming has been essential for me to keep up a high mileage week. I go twice a week and swim with a masters class, trying to keep the heart rate up and not worry too much about the fact that I'm getting my ass kicked by people twice my age. When recovering from a race, I go really slow and stay away from the fins. At the end of the swim session, I do 6 x 50 yards with 25 yards of kicking (no fins) and 25 yards of "running back", ie, slow underwater running.

5. Supplements. I've tried a bunch of supplements and have found most to be marginal in their recovery assistance. But I have had success with taking enzymes to help the body break down proteins and the such, much in thanks to prompting from my wife. I have found Hammer Nutrition's Tissue Rejuvenator to be a good mix of enzymes that improves my recovery time by 10-15%. When I'm really beat up (bruises and the such), I get a TRMA enzyme supplement from the health store. That stuff is miraculous if you're bruising, but fairly useless if not. I also take Vitamin E and a protein supplement - not sure if it helps recovery or not, but there you go.

Put it all together, and my post race recovery routine looks something like this:

Immediate after the race - Short jog, then walk for 3-4 minutes to cool down while drinking 12-16 oz of water or juice. Put on warm clothes, then eat everything in site to replenish my glycogen. Drink a beer and cheer on the other finishers for the next hour. If there is a creek, ocean, or cold lake nearby, wade in for 10 minutes.

Later that night - Take an Epsom salt bath (2 cups of Epsom salt, in ice if I'm looking for a fast recovery), and slowly massage your legs while in the bath. If I still feel stiff, I'll take a short walk or pedal on the bike for 10 minutes before going to bed. Drink 2 cups of water with my supplements, and hit the sack.

Day One - No running workout. Be super lazy, and keep my feet out of shoes as much as possible. I'll walk a bit here and there, but usually just go see a movie, play with the dog, and work on the blog. I do take more enzymes, as well as Aleve if I actually need to do something that day.

Day Two - No running workout. Measure heart rate. Hit the pool for some light swimming (30-40 min), no fins. No ibuprofen, but enzymes.

Day Three - If the HRM looks good, do a light workout on the elliptical trainer or bike (30 min) and some stretching; no sweating, just easy motion. No Aleve, go off the enzymes.

Day Four - If the HRM looks good, I might run 3-4 miles. Otherwise, back to the pool for slow swimming.

Day Five - If the HRM looks good, 5-6 mile run. Otherwise, rest.

Day 6+ - Ease back into the weekly workout, staying off sprints and hill repeats at first.

After Miwok, my heart rate was off for two days. My muscles recovered by day 4, but I felt some aching in my tendons and IT band that had me concerned, so I stayed in the pool until day 6. By day 7, I felt good enough to put on the shoes and do a light run. I feel ready for Ohlone this Sunday.

I hope that helps! Be sure to share any other tips you have found helpful.




  1. very cool, thanks for sharing!

  2. Love your post. I'll see you at the Ohlone 50K!


  3. Thanks for the tips! I gave up ice baths for Epsom Salt baths... You shared some useful stuff here!!

  4. even those of us who did run in H.S. and college forget the fundamentals sometimes. I've had to "relearn" a lot and one key I didn't see you say is:

    Stretch. That's been a huge one for me. Flexibility = faster recovery and less injury.

    I also love pool workouts. I can feel the difference!

  5. Something I do that works well is elevate my legs. Sit on your bed with your butt up at the head board and your legs up on the wall for 10 mins. or so. This helps to flush things out.

  6. Scott:

    Another very helpful post. Swimming has been my savior from running injuries.
    One real recovery mistake for amateurs like me is to eat too much in the day(s) after the race. That leaves you worse off - so eat right after the race would be my big tip.

  7. Wow that was quite a detailed recovery download.

    See you at Ohlone 50k.

  8. Thanks Scott, I'm giving those hammer tissue rejuvinators a try. A product that I found useful for injuries is the "Ice-Up."

    Details can be found at:

    Really convinient when I want to focus my icing on certain areas that are sore or injured. However, I don't agree with all the ads that claim it is leak proof.

  9. My, science and experience to a "t", just wish I do all those things:) but even half is better than nothing, right? thanks for the link, I'll try that.

  10. Scott,
    excellent information on recovery!

    Judging from the Ohlone Race web site looks like you will be running some impressive and pretty remote trails this week-end - I wish you all the best for the race.

    Maybe a suggestion for a future blog report: How does a pack list (pre race, race and post-rate equipment) look like, especially for an Ultra like the Ohlone Race - you did say you like your toys (?) :-)

    Mick (UK)

  11. Is it better to have an ice bath before or after a hot shower?

  12. I don't think it makes much difference on the timing of the ice bath. Honestly though, I've never tried doing the ice bath after the shower - I always hit the ice bath ASAP after a race.

    Try it out and let us know what you think!


  13. After reading your excellent tips, I decided to surf around a bit. I found this interesting article, It may be more suited to cricketers than triathetes, i dont know but i think it could be worth a try?


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