The secret to lasting success as a runner? Having a smart recovery routine. Here's how to maximize yours no matter how much time you have.
Getty Images In her 20S, Laura Carroll Wetz would go from her run to the shower without missing a beat (or feeling any pain). Today the 41-year-old says that skipping her recovery routine leaves her stiff not only right after running but the next day, too. "If I don't cool down, my body pays the price," she admits.
Runners generally fall into two camps post-run: those who rush off to their next responsibility and those who, like Wetz, try to return their bodies to a pre-workout state. The former may get away with their habit for a while, but eventually, experts say, time catches up with them.
"As a result of a workout, four major things happen," explains Christopher Wahl, MD, chief of sports medicine in the department of orthopedic surgery at UC San Diego Health System. "Your body gets dehydrated, your energy stores are depleted, there's temporary muscle damage and there's mental fatigue." For true recovery, you need to address all four of those factors. Otherwise "you'll increase your risk of injury and won't be able to perform to your full potential next time," notes Kari Brown Budde, DPT, a sports physical therapist in Columbus, Ohio.
Luckily, whether you have only a few minutes or a chunk of time, we've got the post-exercise routine to keep you feeling your best.
Related: 15 Best Dog Breeds for Runners
If you have: 10 minutes...
Drink chocolate milk: Milk's combo of protein and natural sugars, coupled with the added sugars from the syrup, helps replenish energy stores and aid muscle cells with rebuilding. "Research has shown that low-fat chocolate milk is just as effective as sport drinks, if not more so," says Reed Ferber, PhD, associate professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and director of its Running Injury Clinic. While you have up to two hours post-run to drink it down, "the sooner you have it, the better," says Kristine Clark, PhD, director of sports nutrition at Penn State University. "Exercise stimulates certain hormones in your body, and when they are high, you can get more out of the incoming nutrients to help with recovery."
Not a fan of the milk mustache? Try one of the carb-protein combos in Recovery Foods (below).
Get a rubdown: "Massages decrease levels of the chemical by-products associated with muscle damage, along with pain and swelling," Ferber says. "You're helping to pump out that chemical cocktail, so your body can rid itself of it more efficiently."
Having a pro work you over is best. If you're strapped for time, DIY with effleurage, in which you use your fingertips like a comb to compress and stroke your muscles. "Lie on your back with knees bent and feet up against a wall. Start from your feet and work your way toward your heart," Dr. Wahl says. "It should be deep enough to feel good, but not painful."
Related: The Best Post-Workout Stretches
If you have: 15 minutes...
Keep moving: "Active recovery improves blood flow and lets energy systems gradually return to their resting state, reducing stiffness and soreness," Budde explains. She has her runners do a five-minute dynamic cooldown with exercises like side shuffles and leg swings. Afterward, drink chocolate milk and do 10 minutes of self-massage.
If you have: 20 minutes...
Do active recovery, drink chocolate milk and then:
Roll it out: Try a foam roller. "There's ample evidence that this kind of massage helps boost tissue repair, increases mobility and decreases soreness," Budde says. Placing your full weight on the roller creates the pressure needed to break up adhesions and scar tissue. "Loosening these areas helps the muscles contract more efficiently, so you can move more easily and improve your performance," she adds. Use it on major muscles, such as calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, outer thighs and lower back.
Slip into an ice bath: For recovery, many swear by ice baths. "The theory is that during one, blood shifts from the legs to the core because your body wants to maintain a higher core temperature," Dr. Wahl says. This means more blood flows to the heart and lungs, helping to restore the heart. And the cool water around your legs blunts inflammation, Dr. Wahl adds. When you get out, the thinking goes, the oxygen-rich blood flows back to the legs, helping to flush out by-products connected to muscle soreness.
Within 20 minutes after a particularly hard or long run, fill your tub with enough cool water to cover your thighs. (Avoid ice baths if you have vascular disease.) Then gradually add in three 5-pound bags of ice. Fifteen minutes should be plenty to put your aches on iceany longer, Dr. Wahl says, and you risk hypothermia.