Most runners know recovery is an important part of their training program, however it's often overlooked. As a result, lingering muscle soreness and fatigue. From magnesium baths, to foam rollers and Tiger Balm, there's a stack of recovery methods to choose from, but here are four proven approaches that will actually help.
1. Compression tights, socks or sleeves
Previously used on the legs of diabetics and pilots, compression garments are now worn by elite athletes, runners and players of all sports to help improve performance and speed-up recovery.
By increasing muscle oxygenation, they prevent blood from pooling in the body, increase muscle temperature, and reduce muscle vibration to speed-up recovery time.
In the last couple of years two scientific publications have reviewed, evaluated and summarised the findings from over 40 studies on the effects of compression garments on recovery. What they found was that compression garments elicit a positive recovery benefit for wearers following exercise, particularly by improving maximal strength following resistance exercise, reducing swelling, and reducing the perception of muscle soreness following exercise.
Australian researchers who put rugby players in full length tights during recovery runs on a treadmill found that compression helped remove lactate from their blood. Also, US researchers who put men and women in whole body compression garments after intense weightlifting found that they helped reduce fatigue, swelling and muscle soreness.
2. Ice baths
Have you ever suffered an acute injury like a sprained ankle and been told by a doctor or Physiotherapist to ice it straight away? This treatment is recommended because cold therapy reduces the ability of fluids to diffuse into and between muscle cells – reducing inflammation and secondary damage. It's also why ice baths have become a recovery regime for pro-athletes.
Exposure to cold helps combat the micro-trauma (small tears) in muscle fibres and subsequent soreness caused by intense or repetitive exercise. It's also thought to constrict blood vessels, flush waste products and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.
Again, lots of studies on the efficacy of ice baths have been conducted and the evidence stacks up. In one study participants were instructed to put one leg into an ice bath after a strenuous run, and to leave the other one out. Swelling was reduced in the freezing cold leg.
Shona Halson, Senior Recovery Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport, has reviewed a lot of the research and come up with a list of factors to consider when using ice baths. She says that the steep downhills in trail running require eccentric muscle contractions, in which leg muscles lengthen even though you're trying to contract them, and that the resulting muscle damage is likely to benefit from ice baths.
3. Recovery Pump Boots
These space-age looking boots are not the latest in active wear but rather a growing recovery method for athletes and endurance runners. The thigh-high sleeves provide intermittent pneumatic compression - a therapeutic, controlled pressure cycle to the limbs.
While only becoming popular recently, this technology has been around for decades. Recovery pumps were originally used for medical treatment of swelling triggered by lymph node damage or removal, management of circulatory disorders and prevention of deep vein thrombosis. Recovery pump boots are said to help facilitate the removal of waste product, inflammation, swelling and promote a healthy blood flow back into the muscles.
When the technique is applied to athletes, studies have shown a significant improvement in accelerating recovery after training as well as enhanced flexibility and range of motion. For example, a study of twenty people who wore recovery pump boots on their legs for one hour found the external pneumatic compression improved blood flow to the lower limbs.
While self-massage using tools like spikey balls and foam rollers is an option, having a qualified sports or remedial massage therapist release tight muscles is a popular recovery technique. That's why professional runners include massage therapists along with coaches, doctors and nutritionists in their teams.
Professional massages help reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after a hard run, improve circulation and flush out toxins and waste products like lactic acid.
Despite its popularity, up until recently science hadn't confirmed how massage actually benefits recovery. New research has now shed light on this. Firstly, it's worth noting that studies have shown that massage doesn't push toxins out of the muscles and into the bloodstream or flush lactic acid from muscles.
However, a major benefit of massage is that through applying pressure it relaxes tense muscles and removes adhesions or minor scar tissue between muscles and fascia (the band of connective tissue that lies beneath the skin that attaches, stabilises, wraps around and separates muscles, bones, joints and internal organs). Unneeded tension and adhesions can restrict movement and impair your range of motion, potentially leading to abnormal movement patterns that can cause overuse injuries.
Studies have found that massage after exercise does reduce the intensity of DOMS and other research suggests that it improves immune function and reduces inflammation. Furthermore, one study found that just one massage treatment resulted in an increased number of several types of lymphocytes (white blood cells that play a key role in fighting infection) while also decreasing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone linked to chronic inflammation) – which is good news for runners who push to exertion.
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
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Have a recovery technique you swear by? Share your tips in the comments section below.