Fitness Articles

10 Dos and 4 Don'ts for Recovering & Refueling After a Race or Workout

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You've trained for weeks, maybe even months. You know exactly what to eat on the morning of your race or event, and how to stay fueled and hydrated along the course. From great shoes to a grooving playlist, you've got all the details covered to ensure that you finish strong and smiling.
 
But what happens next? Have you considered what you'll do in those first minutes, hours and days after the event? Oft forgotten, but just as crucial, planning for your recovery after a race or tough training session can be the difference between optimal bounceback and injury. If your post-race plans can be summed up with a nap and a beer, it may be time to rethink and develop a strategic proper recovery strategy.

Who Needs Recovery?

If you're "just" running a short-distance race or playing in a recreational sports league, the idea of recovery may not even be on your radar. Isn't that just something only elite athletes and Olympians have to worry about?
 
Matthew Reicher says no. As the former athletic trainer for the Brooklyn Nets and the MLS New York Red Bulls, he's helped dozens of professional athletes build optimal recovery techniques. According to Reicher, though, it may be even more important for beginners to have a post-game plan. "Those who are new to training or competing shouldn't overexert themselves, assuming they can do a few quick recovery techniques and then feel fine the next day," he says.
 
And one recovery technique does not fit all. Yours should be customized to your preferences, intensity level and choice of sport. "Although the basic recovery principles will be similar for all sports, an athlete should focus on the most appropriate soft tissue," says Reicher. "For example, a soccer player should focus on the lower half of his or her body. Each modality has proven physiological benefits, so one is not necessarily better than the other. And if one technique seems to help more than another, stick with it."
 
Sarah Piampiano, winner of the 2016 Ironman 70.3 in New Orleans, mixes several recovery modalities to rebound after a grueling race or training session, including proper nutrition, the right amount of sleep, functional movement and other tools and mechanisms. "The key is understanding your body, and what you need to recover best," she says. "For example, I'm not a very flexible or limber person, so my muscles tend to get tight. If I don’t get a massage at least once a week, my recovery quickly becomes compromised and I become more prone to injury."

Let's Get Physical

After a race or training session, your body may need some extra TLC. Depending on the length and intensity of your workout, plus any specific pains or problems you're experiencing, experts recommend trying some (or all) of these strategies.
 
Roll away the pain.
 
If you're feeling stiff or sore after a workout, self-myofascial release with a foam roller can help alleviate muscle and joint pain, improve circulation and increase flexibility. Piampiano uses a foam roller or lacrosse ball to work out the kinks in her sore muscles. Professional triathlete Lauren Goss also relies on a foam roller to stretch out her back, quads, IT band and calves at the end of each day.
 
Stretch it out.
 
A regular stretching routine helps to reduce muscle tension and soreness, increase range of motion and improve circulation, all of which aid in recovery. After a hard workout, Reicher does an intense session of static stretching. "Make sure to hold each stretch for one to two minutes," he recommends. "Most people only hold stretches for 20 or 30 seconds, which is not enough time to gain any soft tissue elongation."
 
Catch some shuteye.
 
This may seem like an easy one, but busy schedules mean that many of us operate on a sleep deficit. When you're ramping up your exercise frequency and intensity, it's even more important to get plenty of shuteye. "There is no better form of recovery than sleep, and most people don’t get enough of it," says Piampiano. "I make it a point to take 20 to 40 minute naps several times per week, and always shoot for eight to 10 hours of sleep per night."
 
And when it comes to sleep, quality is just as important as quantity. Piampiano recommends investing in a quality mattress, such as the Bear Mattress, and keeping your bedroom dark and quiet.
 
Keep moving.
 
You've earned some rest after that challenging race or tough workout, but opt for the active variety. Piampiano is a big fan of functional movement, which mimics actions you'd take in real-world situations. "Staying active in the day or two after the race with stretching, light spinning on a bike, walking or light jogging will help keep the blood flowing and flush out the lactic acid," she says.
 
Chill out.
 
To speed recovery, Reicher often soaks in an ice tub, or even a whole-body cryotherapy chamber. "Cryotherapy surrounds the body with -300 degree Fahrenheit nitrogen, which causes a 'fight or flight' response that ultimately sends nutrient-rich blood back to the arms and legs," he says. Freeze therapy does pose some risks for people with certain medical conditions, so be sure to talk with your doctor before starting a session.
 
Use compression and elevation.
 
Elevating the legs after a workout helps to improve circulation and flushes lactic acid from the muscles, while wearing compression gear can help speed up muscle recovery. "When I'm not training, my legs are typically elevated, and I have on compression socks as well as either NormaTec recovery boots or my Marc Pro—both excellent recovery machines," says Piampiano.

Treat yourself to a massage.
 
Beyond relaxation, massage therapy accelerates muscle repair and recovery, increases joint flexibility and improves blood circulation. "Massage is a key part of my recovery routine and critical to getting my muscles flushed out and working properly," says Piampiano, who has bodywork sessions once or twice a week. Want to get the benefits without busting your budget? Ask a spouse or partner to work out some kinks or look for a Groupon to significantly knock down the cost.

Refueling the Tank

"Every time you exercise and train—whether you're going out for an easy training ride, run or swim, or you've had an intense session or competitive event—your body sustains some muscle fiber breakdown," says Piampiano. To combat that breakdown and to help rebuild those fibers faster and stronger, being smart about your nutrition intake is key. In the minutes or days following your training session or race, reward your muscles for all their hard work by properly refueling your body.
 
Focus on fluids.
 
The experts are unanimous on the importance of hydration. On any given day, Piampiano drinks around four liters of fluid per day, and then another one to one and a half bottles per hour during training sessions. For beginners, she recommends drinking one ounce of water for every one pound of bodyweight per day.
 
Power up with a healthy snack.
 
Even if you're not feeling particularly hungry right after a workout, it's important to refuel as soon as possible. "After training, the body has about a 20-minute window in which consumption of protein can help mitigate muscle breakdown and aid in repair," Reicher says. He encourages his athlete clients to drink a shake with at least 20 grams of protein at the end of each training session, and to follow proper nutrition guidelines throughout the day and into the night. "One strategy that I use is to have the athletes consume 20 grams of protein immediately before bed, which allows the body to build and repair muscle during the overnight hours," he says.
 
Goss’ preferred post-event snack is a smoothie with First Endurance Ultragen blended with frozen bananas, Beet Performer and almond milk. Another favorite is a sweet potato with almond butter and avocado, or a hardboiled egg with toast. Whatever your preference, many trainers recommend that a post-race snack should include roughly a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
 
Follow a consistent eating schedule.
 
In addition to refueling immediately after an event, Piampiano stresses the importance of following a regular eating schedule. Every day, she eats breakfast as soon as she wakes up, a mid-morning snack, lunch, two afternoon snacks, dinner and a snack before bed—all of which are high in lean protein with plenty of healthy fats.
 
"Under-eating and inconsistent eating patterns put a tremendous amount of stress on the body and hamper the recovery process," says Piampiano. "As an example, today I did a three-hour bike ride followed immediately by a 30-minute run. As soon as I finished, I ate a rice cake with almond butter and a sliced banana. After my afternoon swim, I ate a Kit’s Organic Peanut Butter bar by Clif Bar within 15 minutes of finishing, and then had a salad with shredded chicken for lunch."

Recovery Mistakes to Avoid

Don't skip it.
 
Don't try to convince yourself that you don’t need to recover or take a rest day, says Reicher. "Overtraining syndrome can be very serious, and can lead to decreased performance, lack of sleep, depression and injury,” he warns. “It will affect any athlete, from amateur to Olympic, if proper rest is not part of their program. More training doesn’t necessarily equal better results."
 
Don't not eat.
 
If you're trying to lose or maintain weight, it may be tempting to skip the post-workout snack, especially if you're not feeling hungry—but you could pay for it later. "Post-workout calories are vital both to your recovery and staving off huge carb cravings and eating binges later in the day," Piampiano points out. "It can be as simple as an apple with a tablespoon of almond butter, or a protein bar. Just make sure to eat after your workout!"
 
Don't run in old sneakers.
 
For runners, worn-down shoes can cause injury and delay the recovery process. Goss recommends investing in a fresh pair every six months or so, although you can use these four tests to determine how often you should pick up a new pair.
 
Don't train through an injury.
 
When you've already come so far, your first instinct may be to power through the pain, but that could set you up for an unwanted hiatus. "Don't keep training when your body is telling you to stop," Goss says. "Fix the injury and then start back up." Instead, focus on RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) so you can come back faster and stronger.
 
By following these physical and nutritional recovery tips, you'll help to prevent injury, improve performance and stay motivated for your next training session or event.

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Member Comments

  • Great ideas on how to ease back into the real world following a strenuous event!
  • My first 5K walk was for Multiple Schlerosis back in 1991 or so. I got through it okay, I thought. But I was totally surprised by how badly I felt later that night or the next day or two. I didn't know any of the stuff in this article so obviously I made a lot of mistakes. But...now I want to look ahead to the future and do another 5K and be better at recovery. Oh and I need some more shoes too!! Yay!

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.