Running Recovery: Debunking 10 Recovery Myths

There’s a lot to say about running recovery.

You likely have a routine that you’re like and are comfortable with. You know it can be more dialed in because you’re still feeling soreness post run.

Some runners are ok to rely on active recovery for all their recovery needs. They can fill their non-running days with cross-training like hikes, cycling, or weight training. These are great recommended exercises for injury recovery as well.

Others love a passive option like running a bath with epsom salts and melting into the restful ambiance or plunging into a freezing ice bath.

There are very few ways to mess up recovery. If you incorporate rest days into your training plans, you will recover.

Sure, if you are overtraining and skipping recovery entirely – that’s probably not going to work.

Regardless of your fitness level, whether you’re a beginner or are running one-hundred miles per week, if you want to maximize the time between runs there are a few things you should know.

Debunking running recovery myths with a woman stretching in a park.

What Happens During ‘Recovery’?

Recovery happens in the period between runs. In that time your body will return to a neutral state. Experts call this homeostasis.

Exercise in any form is a stress physiologically and chemically. 

There are different types of recovery processes that serve different purposes.

Immediate recovery, for example, is the bit of easy run you may take between laps on the track, allowing your heart rate to return to normal before stressing your system with another.

The more broad form of running muscle recovery, that runners actively work toward, happens between training sessions. Most of the time, you want your body to take all the time it needs to recover, but there are some instances where you might want to speed it up–like in the case of running back-to-back days or even two running sessions per day. 

Whatever the time period you’re working with, the goal of recovery is to:

  • Refuel
  • Rehydrate
  • Rest
  • Reduce Inflammation
  • Repair Muscle Tissue

A woman stretching in a gym as part of running recovery.

Debunking Recovery Myths

If you’re training for a half marathon or any other race for that matter, the first step in establishing your recovery – is to dial in a recovery routine.

Prioritizing a routine amount of recovery after every run, regardless of intensity, will keep you injury-free and help you get the most out of each training sesson.

But let’s be real, there’s a lot of misinformation on running recovery. The science is always evolving and what works for one runner, won’t necessarily work for every runner.

So what is fact and fiction? What recovery modalities are worth your time and your money?

Myth #1: You must stretch right after you run

Don’t misread this one. Stretching is not bad.

There just isn’t much literature that proves it is the end-all, be-all for injury prevention or post-run recovery.

This meta-analysis, for example, found no conclusive evidence that post-exercise stretching was better than other recovery techniques, mostly because data is scarce and not easy to compare. 

That being said, doing a cool down of mobility work before going back to your desk or car is highly recommended by Seattle-based physical therapist and clinic manager Mark Bouma.

It can be as simple as a five to ten minute routine.

Myth #2: Foam rolling is better than stretching

Look, foam rolling is good, but as Bouma notes, you can keep your recovery simple and still feel results. 

Researchers see evidence that foam rolling post-exercise can speed up recovery, but the underlying mechanism as to why is not totally understood.

Providing a myofascial release is the most commonly held belief in why foam rollers help. This 2019 meta-analysis suggests that it might be a psychological benefit more than physical.

Ultimately, the study authors note “there are not enough high-quality and well-designed studies on [foam rolling] to draw any definite conclusions.” A different literature review found that foam rolling did reduce muscle soreness and that the optimum dosage was 90 – 120 seconds.

So do you need to keep a relationship with your dusty old foam roller? Not if you don’t want to.

Bouma also notes that the intensely spiked foam rollers can be dangerous and, if you’re running on a budget, may not be the smartest investment.

The other argument you’ll hear for foam rolling is that it will increase blood flow to muscles. In a 2017 study, this was proven to be true. But increased blood flow will do more for injury prevention than sore muscle recovery.

Myth #3: Percussive therapy is more effective than foam rolling

If you’re not familiar with the term then first, what is percussive therapy? Percussive therapy involves rapid, repeated vibrations that can distribute fascia fluid and release lactic acid from muscle fibers to improve mobility and reduce soreness.

If you haven’t heard of percussive therapy, you may have heard of a massage gun or Theragun. The caveat with this recovery modality, is that these machines often come with a decent price tag.   

You’ll be happy to hear that researchers have not found percussive therapy to be more beneficial than foam rolling or stretching. Which means that you don’t have to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on a percussive gun. 

Myth #4: Protein is all you need, nutritionally, to recover

While protein is important in rebuilding muscle post-exercise, there are a host of other nutrients that also demand our attention in recovery. 

Experts say to focus on the 3 R’s of recovery nutrition–refuel, rebuild, and rehydrate.

Protein focuses heavily on the rebuild stage. To refuel, it’s important to replenish glycogen stores in the form of carbohydrates. Rehydrate, of course includes good old H2O, but the electrolytes lost through sweat (sodium, magnesium, calcium, etc.) should not be forgotten either.

Balance your hydration needs with water with supplements or sports drinks.

For meals with a balance of proteins, carbs, and fats, we’ve got our 20 favorite meals for runners.

Myth #5: Cold plunging is the way to go

Cold plunging is a common protocol among athletes. And, it’s great for acute aches and injuries as it reduces inflammation and numbs pain.

But studies find that submerging in hot water (between 98 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit depending on your tolerance) is a better recovery aid for daily training.

The heated water improves range of motion and increases blood flow for muscle repair.  

Myth #6: Nothing beats a solid 8 hours of rest

The experts are pretty clear on this one, sleep deprivation is detrimental to both performance and recovery.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to recoup a bad night’s sleep. In fact, even just a short nap can be beneficial to recovery if you know a good 8 hours isn’t in your future (looking at all the parents out there). 

Myth #7: There is a magic bullet to recovery

There is no secret formula or magic bullet for the perfect recovery. Recovering from running is nuanced and there are factors out of our control that affect how quickly the body recovers, like sex and age. In reality, you likely need to experiment and find out what works best for you and your body.

And when you find it you’ll know. Except for the really tough workouts and longest runs, you shouldn’t dread training. You shouldn’t be sore constantly. You shouldn’t feel weaker as the training cycle goes on. 

Bouma notes that if you’re relying heavily on recovery tools, there may be a reason why. “If you’re having to routinely roll out your IT band or Theragun or something like that–there’s a reason why your IT band is too tight. From a PT side of things, we want to know what muscles aren’t working that’s causing the IT band to get overloaded all the time.” As he notes, sometimes recovery trends focus too much on the symptom and not enough on the cause of the problem. 

Myth #8: You need to stretch before your runs

There are two types of stretching – dynamic and static. Static is the type of stretching where you reach for your toes and hold. Dynamic is the type where you’re swinging your legs back and forth.

“Stretching” is a generic term that is often recommended as part of every warm up. A stretch before your workout should mirror the movements you’re about to make during your next workout.

Static stretching before a run may lead to a negative impact on performance. Dynamic stretching can be valuable but, you can receive the same benefits from dynamic stretching by simply running at a much slower pace than your training run.

It’s also important to consider, your pre-run warm up will change depending on what type of run you will be doing. If you’ll be performing high-intensity sprints on a track, your stretching will be more explosive. Long distance slower runs, your stretching can be low intensity.

Myth #9: Take ibuprofen for muscle soreness

If you’re in unbearable pain from a hard workout or post race of your marathon, by all means, do what you feel you need to do. But, it’s been proven that taking ibuprofen for muscle soreness and recovery will hurt running performance and adaptations. And, another study actually found that anti-inflammatory drugs slowed recovery times.

Running Recovery Tips

Every athlete is different. But, the tried and true rules of thumb when it comes to running recovery are:

  • Incorporate recovery days into your training program. Recovery is as important as running and aids in reducing risk of injury.
  • Strength training may reduce your risk of injury and aid in recovery more than stretching, according to a 2013 study.
  • A well balanced nutrition plan of protein, carbs, and fats will support recovery.
  • If all else fails, consult a sports medicine doctor or running coach for support. If your recovery program is flawless, maybe your training plan, running form, or another variable may be the cause.

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