What is meant by Running Recovery: An important concept for New Runners

As a new runner, you may hear or read about “recovery runs” and “running recovery” quite often.  I was a bit confused exactly what was meant when I first started running and thought I’d share some things I learned over the years.

In general, the terms running recovery and recovery runs are both referring to the period of time after a strenuous workout.  This is when the healing process begins as the body rebuilds and gets stronger.  All the benefits of a workout come during this repairing or recovery process which is why it is so important to runners.   

There are two types of recovery techniques that are used by runners to aid the body in the healing process.  Many are familiar with the one that that involves a couch and ice, but other methods can be more beneficial. Find out how and when to use the different strategies to help you become a stronger runner below.

Passive Recovery

Passive recovery generally refers to a period of time when the body is still thus allowing the body to rest.  The body can only start repairing and rebuilding itself once the stressor causing the damage is removed or stopped.  Complete rest or inactivity is the best way to ensure there is no additional stress being exerted on the body. 

During passive recovery, the body is working hard to repair damage to muscles, ligaments, and tendons.  The cardiovascular system recovers rather quickly, but the muscular, skeletal, and nervous system usually require more time.  This is where passive recovery comes in and involves anything inactive from sitting down, laying on the couch, or sleeping. 

Best Passive Recovery method

Sleep is a very important part of passive recovery.  Sleep is when all the magic happens as the body repairs damage that has occurred throughout the day.  This happens each night repairing the body from normal stresses and strains of the day unrelated to exercising. 

The benefits of sleep can’t be overstated.  As most adults rarely get the recommend amount by experts, it can be easy to overlook sleep as an important recovery tool. 

Make a concerted effort to get more sleep the night after a hard run. You may also benefit from taking a nap at some point after a strenuous run.  This will jump start the healing process and put you in a better spot rather quickly.

Active Recovery

Active recovery refers to any type of activity that stimulates the muscles with light or low-intensity movement.  Any activity that results in increased blood flow to the muscles is considered active recovery. 

During recovery, the body is busy rebuilding muscle fibers, building new blood vessels to the muscles, and eliminating waste products.  The increased blood flow from a low-intensity activity can promote all these processes providing faster recovery.

There have been many studies on the beneficial effects of active recovery and most athletes can testify to its effectiveness.  Unless you are injured or in pain, most can boost the body’s healing process with some light activities outlined below.

Active Recovery methods

Massage therapy is considered active recovery since it stimulates blood flow to the muscles and surrounding tissues.  There are many studies highlighting the benefits of massage therapy and is probably one of the more attractive active recovery methods (see article here).

Running can be done for recovery if it is slow and easy enough to be considered low intensity for your body.  Recovery runs are popular among many serious runners because, as you may have guessed, you still get to run!  For most beginners, any running will not likely be easy enough to aid in recovery. 

Walking is one of the best recovery methods regardless of how sore you are or what what your fitness level is.  Unless you are injured or in pain, walking is an convenient and practical method that nearly everyone can do. It can loosen up tight hamstrings, reduce soreness, and provide a bounty of other benefits beyond aiding the recovery process (see article here).

Swimming is extremely low impact exercise and has been shown to be an effective method to boost performance for the next running workout.  There is virtually no impact to joints and the water will likely make your tired legs feel better.

Stretching is one of the more common methods to sooth tight muscles and ease tension in the body.  Unlike other activities, stretching allows you can target and isolate specific areas without impacting other parts of the body.

Cycling is another popular activity that gives many of the running muscles a break and is easy on the joints. You can engage in this activity longer than some of the other recovery strategies making it attractive for those still wanting a good cardio workout.

Which Recovery Method is Best?

Both active and passive recovery are important and should be employed as needed between workouts.  Experience will help you determine which method is best for you and at what time, but it will always be a balancing act. 

Listen to your body and be aware of the signals or warning signs it is giving you.  Knowing the difference between soreness and pain can be tricky.  Knowing the difference between tiredness and exhaustion can be even more difficult.  Both are important to differentiate to avoid injury and recovery quickly. 

Unless you are in pain, exhausted, or injured, the body usually benefits more from some active recovery during a rest day than complete rest.  

Be mindful that many active recovery methods can be considered cross-training so make sure to keep the activity at a lower intensity for recovery.  One expert recommended that the effort of an active recovery exercise should be no more than 50% max effort, but for some this may be too much.   

Beginners and older runners will likely need more time for recovery.  Beginner runners need to give their body time to adapt while older runners require more time to heal.  A good recovery strategy can help any runner recover faster and boost their next performance. 

With all the benefits of passive and active recovery, knowing which strategies are best and when to use them can be elusive.  Thus, running recovery remains, and will continue to be, a popular topic in the running community.

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