The shift in training attitudes over the past few years has been palpable. Where “no pain, no gain” was once a phrase we’d see commonly on nonsensical posters and spewing from the mouths of sweaty gym bros, it’s now just a cringey core memory that pops into our psyche from time to time. Did I really think that was motivating at one point in my life?
“All through the 90’s and early 2000’s there was a big fitness boom that came about and a push for people to stay active,” says Susy Delgado, founder of the California-based KW Recovery Lab. For two decades she’s worked in physical therapy clinics and clinical settings as an athletic trainer where she has seen the rise in weekend warriors and everyday athletes firsthand.
With that rise, one puzzle piece was missing: recovery. “It’s definitely well woven into our culture now to keep moving, but with no direct recipe or pathway or access to be able to keep moving comfortably,” she says. Without focus on recovery, that movement won’t matter.
What Is Recovery Anyway?
In 2018 when she opened the Recovery Lab she’d field many confused phone calls about what exactly the business was for. Now in 2022, Target has a “Recovery” aisle. Delgado is fielding fewer questions while the recovery business is booming.
Researchers are also trying to understand how and why recovery benefits performance at the same time recreational athletes want to know how to utilize all the biometric health monitoring data now at their fingertips thanks to Whoop, Oura, Biostrap, Garmin, and the like.
Take this recent study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The researchers wanted to answer the question, does ditching the digital training plan in favor of personalized recovery days equate to improvements in performance? For the recreational runners participating in the study, the answer was, yes.
Of the 30 runners in the small study, 14 were put into a training group following a standard 10K training plan. The other 16 were given individualized plans where their training load was either increased, decreased, or maintained twice per week based on their recovery metrics. And while both training groups ran faster 10K times at the end of the study, those with the individual plan saw nearly double the improvement in their times than the group following the standard training plan.
Nocturnal heart rate variability (HRV), muscle soreness, heart-rate running speed index, and subjective feelings of fatigue were the markers used to determine a runner’s level of recovery. Based on those markers, some of the runners with the personalized plans ended up with either more demanding or less demanding training plans and still saw marked improvement.
The parasympathetic nervous system is generally responsible for rest, recovery, and repair, which is why it can be helpful to track information related to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, like heart rate variability and resting heart rate. (Of note, the Whoop strap uses HRV and resting heart rate, as well as sleep performance to calculate recovery scores. Oura uses HRV, resting heart rate, and body temperature to calculate a readiness score. High HRV indicates more parasympathetic activity–a rested state–while a low HRV indicates the body is still in stress mode.)
Taking Charge Of Recovery
While the technology is inching in the right direction, it’s also true that recovery data is not perfect, which is why runners should be empowered to take ownership of their own recovery.
Studies like this one beg the question, have we been paying enough attention to our recovery on a given day? Should we give ourselves greater flexibility in our training plans? And how do you do that if you don’t have the benefit of a coach or recovery wearable to cue you?
Some Recovery Basics
What does ‘recovery’ actually entail?
First, there is the musculoskeletal system, where we often feel soreness and pain from training. Damage done to muscles and connective tissue during a workout result in a diminished ability for those in question to function at a peak level until fully repaired. Muscle damage also depletes the ability to transport blood glucose, in turn depleting the ability to replenish glycogen stores. And those glycogen stores do need to be replenished, ideally before the next demanding run.
Last, metabolic byproducts that accumulate while running, like lactate, need time to flush out, otherwise it can hinder the electrical stimulus needed for muscle contraction.
Part of the enjoyment that comes from endurance training is in the self-discovery: figuring out what your body can and can’t do and how to condition it to do the things it couldn’t before. Delgado notes that an attitude of self-discovery can transform your recovery as well.
One way to start planning your recovery with the same intent as your training is to follow the FITT approach: Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type.
How many days per week do you devote to recovery? Is there flexibility in your plan to schedule in more or less for what your body needs?
In the case of the study cited earlier, researchers checked in and modified runners’ plans only twice a week, which might be more feasible than trying to reorganize your training on a daily basis based on the previous day’s recovery.
What intensity of recovery works best for you? Are you a legs-elevated couch potato? Or are you spending a rest day out cycling with the family? If you are focused on active recovery, think of how to limit the intensity of your workout in order to not overtrain.
Easy runs also play an important role in recovery, but only if you truly keep them easy, which Emily Bennewies, a running coach with Wellness in Motion in Boston, cites as her most essential rule of recovery. “I think everyone, regardless of where they’re at in their running, or what else might be happening besides running physically, that’s one thing we can all definitely do better.”
There are three time periods of recovery that runners should account for: short-term (think between intervals), training recovery (the time between workouts), and long-term (the time you might take off after a race or large training block).
Running coaches like Bennewies can help you to block out and shift around rest days based on your ever-changing life schedule.
Are you focused on active or passive recovery? What modalities will you be using to recover? Recovery is more than just the absence of training. Studies have shown that active recovery–light-intensity movements–return your body to a state of homeostasis faster than passive recovery.
There are many modalities you can use, all of which have some scientific backing behind them (ice baths, stretching, massage, compression, etc.). Delgado recommends focusing on what works best for you.
“If [there was] one thing that I learned in working with patients in the PT setting, it was that you could bring all the science and data to the person, but if psychologically, that person is just not comfortable with extreme heat, or extreme cold, they are not going to let it work in their favor,” she says.
At KW Recovery Lab when a new client is brought in, they can expect to learn about each type of equipment available, the recovery modalities, and the science behind each. But after a few months of experimenting, Delgado expects the athlete to know what the ideal practice is for them. “By month three, you are now an expert and you’re telling us what you need, instead of us telling you.”
She hopes that understanding how to use all the ‘tools’ in your personal recovery ‘toolbox’ is empowering to athletes.
And it should go without saying that adequate sleep and fueling are essential in a runner’s recovery plan. According to a review of recovery research from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) scientific advisory panel, “the most important factor determining the timeframe to recovery is muscle glycogen replenishment.”
When asked what she thought the top priority in recovery should be, Nancy Gomes, a certified sports nutritionist simply stated it was eating and drinking enough. “Making sure, particularly female athletes, get adequate protein with some carbohydrates after they train as quickly as possible is key,” she says.
Consuming enough carbohydrates will refill those glycogen stores and protein will begin the muscle repair process.
Health wearables are also helping runners discover other nutrition habits that boost recovery on a personal level. Think of it as a micro-experiment where you are the test subject.
Through experimentation with her Whoop, Gomes has learned that on days when she is under-recovered, focusing on hydration, probiotics, and omega-3s does wonders for her. “Whoop has actually helped me determine those are some of the most important factors for me to help improve my recovery,” she says.
How To Tell if You Need More Recovery
If you don’t have a biometric health device, there are still signs you can pay attention to that point to overtraining. The biggest red flag being a loss of period for people who menstruate, as well as chronic fatigue, which are both signs of low energy availability.
Research has shown that an elevated resting heart rate in tandem with decreased performance over a week’s time also indicates a state of increased stress.
Working with a running coach or sports nutritionist can help point out any blind spots you have in your recovery. “What we tend to see with really all types of athletes, even the most dedicated ones, is we can be stubborn sometimes with what we think we’re capable of, or what we want to be able to do and not always listen to our bodies,” says Bennewies.
Though she does look at HRV with the runners she coaches, Bennewies tends to stick to the tried and true method of self check-in, something anyone can do. “I think that is honestly the best gauge of if you’re ready to go out for whatever run, whether that be a couple of easy miles, whether that be some speed work, or whether that be a longer run.”
And sure, we all know how to handle the days when we wake up feeling on top of the world just as well as the days we feel like the living dead. It’s the murky in-between days that are the problem, the days where you don’t know if a run will nudge you into overtraining or is just what you need to kick yourself into a higher gear.
Bennewies recommends setting check-in points along the run for days when you’re feeling iffy. Give yourself five minutes of running, for example. If that doesn’t feel good, you can turn back towards home and call it a day. If you feel alright, give it another five minutes and check back in.
“A good way to know if you’re under recovered is just feeling like you can’t necessarily hit the splits that you’re looking for,” says Bennewies. “Sometimes you can feel great and still not hit the split.”
Bennewies can usually guess how a runner feels based on the data she sees from the workout, but what matters most is how they say they feel. There’s no truer indication of your recovery than what your body is telling you.
And while there may not be an exact prescription for recovery yet, every time we move the needle toward training smarter not harder, it is a win for longevity in the sport.