Runner’s Guide to Muscle Recovery – PART ONE
Muscle and body soreness are questions that trainers face on a regular basis. Those just starting a run program and runners trying to improve their distance, pace and finishing times are going to have sore muscles. Pushing ourselves and moving outside of our comfort zone is the only way to improve. But, anytime we push ourselves that little bit further, our bodies react, sometimes get sore and need time to adjust.
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There is a proper way to push to improve and there are tips and tricks to help your muscles recover. In this two part series on Pink Ribbon Runner, I will be talking about just that. Let’s explore how to help your muscles recover and repair in time for your next big workout.
Part One focuses preparing yourself for the run and how to run to best prepare your body for recovery.
Part Two focuses on the recovery and repair in the minutes, hours and days after your run.
Let’s get started with Part One.
Before the Run
The process of a good recovery starts even before you start your run. There are a few things to consider before you head out. Going from zero to full run will shock your body and cause you grief, if not injury. So let’s talk about a few things before we get into actually running.
The best way to build muscle, improve running and prevent excessive muscle soreness or injury is to plan it out. Training plans should focus on progressing slowly to your ultimate goals. You need to balance harder workouts that build muscle strength and endurance with less strenuous workouts for adequate recovery. There is no better way to develop an overuse injury, such as shin splints or muscle strains, than to go out too hard, too fast and too often.
Most good training plans will have you building for 12 to 20 weeks to reach your goal race, depending on the distance you are training for. The greater the distance from where you are starting from, the longer it should take you to get to your goal.
Here are some guidelines to help you plan your runs:
- Plan for two weeks of gradual increase and one week drop-down
- Increase distance by only 10% each week
- Follow an 80% easy and 20% hard effort plan
- One or two days per week of speed work or hill training (hard)
- A long slow distance run once per week (hard)
- One or two “rest” days of very easy running or cross-training per week
- Run all other runs at a comfortable or conversational pace
I found the book 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald infinitely useful. It explains a training method that I use, in part, in my own training. It has helped me become a stronger and faster runner while staying injury free. So far, the principle of training 20% hard and 80% easy has worked for me. It is also one of the tools we used to get my husband his Boston Marathon Qualifying Time. This is one of my go-to books when I do our training plans.
All your running should resemble a bell curve. Each training plan should build slowly, peak, and then taper. Each run should have a warm up, run, and then a cool down.
Gradually building strength over time will help prevent muscle injury. It helps your muscles adjust to the work and prevent excessive soreness.
Nutrition is so important, not just after a run, but before a run. You want to eat a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to fuel your runs.
You may have heard the term Carb Loading. This is an old theory, developed in the 1980s, that has runners eating a lot of carbohydrates, such as pasta, for several days before a race. The idea behind Carb Loading is to build up stores of glycogen in the muscles and liver. This is then to be used as energy in an endurance race.
Unless you are an elite athlete who is running at maximum sustained effort for more than 2 hours, you don’t need to carb load. In fact, too many carbohydrates and not enough protein and fats to balance it out, could leave you feeling weak with hypoglycemia during your run.
So, unless you are under the guidance of a professional trainer or nutritionist, just eat normally. Just fuel your body with a balance of natural wholesome foods. But also, don’t purposefully eliminate carbohydrates. You will need those, as we will see later on when you start running.
For optimal muscle recovery after your run, make sure you are getting enough protein. You can read all about protein in this article. But the short of it is, make sure you are getting at least 45-60 grams of protein per day. If you are training for a half or full marathon, your protein requirements will be higher. Endurance athletes should be getting about 0.45 – 0.72 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. That calculates out to about 75 to 120 grams for a 165 pound person. Your muscles will need this extra protein to recover and rebuild.
Avoid eating a meal within 2 hour before a workout. That food will just sit in your stomach and cause you grief during your run. It won’t have time to be digested enough to be useful to you anyways. If you need something to fuel you just before your workout, have a small snack. Pick something that is easily digestable and will give you energy, such as fruit, energy bar, crackers or granola
Your muscles need to be bathed in fluids to work efficiently and recover quickly. Dehydrated muscle fibers aren’t as stretchy and they stick together. You can’t rehydrate your muscles in just one day. Hydrating starts now and you should maintain your hydration to help your body and mind work to their best in running and in everyday activities.
Most people need to drink about 2 liters of water every day. But your needs can vary with activity levels, the weather, health status, hormonal status, weight and genetics. Drink enough water so that your urine is a very pale yellow colour.
Warming up before a run is essential to start the blood flow, improve range of motion and get your muscles working efficiently.
A slow easy run or brisk paced walk for 5 to 10 minutes before a workout is ideal. Then do some dynamic stretches before setting out for your run.
If you are doing a training run, start again at a slower pace and build up to your training pace within the first half-mile or so. It is acceptable to use part of your training run as your warm up.
If this is a race, you will want to get into race pace fairly soon. Consider extending your warm up run to ensure your muscles and joints are ready to jump into race pace. This is sometimes called a shake out run.
Don’t think that if you are only doing a short race that you can skip a warm up. It is even more important for you to warm up before a 5K race. There is less time in these shorter distances to get your muscles working efficiently, so do it before the race starts. Consider a 20 minute warm up run before a 5K race.
There is debate in the scientific community about the benefit of stretching. Most experts agree, however, that you should not do static stretches before running. Static stretches are those that are done when you are stationary. They are the most common and well known stretches, but aren’t as beneficial as dynamic stretches. Over time, static stretches may actually decrease muscle performance.
Instead, do dynamic stretches before running. These are stretches that are done while moving. They help to improve range of motion and mobility, as well as getting the blood flowing and your muscles prepared for activity. Examples of dynamic stretches include skipping, high knees, butt kicks and leg swings.
Here is a simple dynamic stretch routine for you to try before your next run
- walking lunges x 10
- run in place for 10 seconds
- high knees x 10, try to touch your knee to opposite elbow
- butt kicks x 10, swing your arms too
- jumping jacks x 10
- leg swings x 10 each leg
Shake out your legs and go run!
During the Run
Now that you are warmed up, go run. But consider these few tips to help your muscles recover after your run.
Listen to Your Body
If your body is tired and sore, slow down or shorten your distance. Scientific studies tell us that if our bodies are not at their peak, we are more likely to suffer with muscle soreness afterwards. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is more likely to occur if we haven’t slept well or if we are sick or fighting illness. I talk more about DOMS in part two. Some medications can cause increased soreness too.
So, if you are not feeling 100%, then it might be a good idea to slow down or not run as far as planned that day. Consider swapping out for an easier run and do your hard run another day.
After you warm up, it may still take a few kilometers into your run to truly warm up and start running well. If you are sore and the soreness gets worse as you keep running, something may be wrong and you should slow down or stop and get it checked out. If pain disappears when you run and returns when you stop, it is also time to get it checked out by a medical professional.
Your body is always telling you something. It is time to learn to tune into it so that you know when to push harder and when to back off.
As you work hard, you will sweat and lose water. Take adequate water with you on your run. How much water you lose depends on many factors, such as body weight, exertion level, distance and weather. In general, take about 4 to 6 ounces for every 20 – 30 minutes of running. Muscles contract and relax by fiber filaments sliding back and forth against each other. They need to be wet to do this efficiently.
Guideline: 4 to 6 ounces of water for every 20 – 30 minutes of running
You may have noticed, after a long run or a hard workout, that your face and body feels gritty. This is salt, which is essentially electrolytes. If you sweat a lot, you also lose electrolytes. Muscle and nerve cells use sodium and potassium ion pumps to function. So, to have them work at their best, electrolytes need to be maintained. Consider replacing these as well on a longer run.
Replacing lost electrolytes helps prevent muscle weakness, spasms, cramping, as well as dizziness, heart and intestinal problems. Running low on electrolytes also prevents your body from using glycogen efficiently and can be one of the reasons a runner may bonk. I talk a bit more about bonking below when we talk about fueling your run.
There are many ways to replace your electrolytes. I like Salt Sticks, personally. My favorite are the tasty orange chews, but they can be hard to find. There are other products on the market that can help replace lost electrolytes. Talk to someone in your favorite running or sports store about what they carry. You need to find the product that is right for you.
Fueling on your run
Your muscles use glucose and glycogen for energy. Glucose is a simple sugar and glycogen is a more complex sugar. Glycogen is basically stored glucose, as it is made up of multiple glucose molecules. Glucose is a fast energy source that we get from food. When glucose is used up, which is pretty quick, your muscles will start to open up their stores of glucose by using glycogen.
If you have been eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates before your run, then you probably have good glycogen stores too. But your muscles only store so much glycogen before they start storing up that glucose as fat. So there is no point for the average runner to eat excess amounts of carbohydrates.
If your muscles run out of available glycogen you may bonk. Bonk is another term for hitting the wall. We have all seen those long distance runners suffering out on the race course. They become extremely tired, their legs become weak and they suffer mentally, become dizzy and may seem disoriented or confused. Your brain uses glucose too.
To help prevent bonk and help your body work more efficiently, you should fuel on your longer runs. This should be in the form of something your body can easily and quickly use, which is glucose. So to properly fuel your run, you should be eating something that contains simple carbohydrates.
Guideline: fuel with simple carbohydrates every 30-45 minutes of a run lasting 60 minutes or more.
Most runners use gels or chews for this. There are many different brands on the market. Everyone has their favorites. You can also make your own chews. Some runners will eat candy or dried fruit. You need to find what works best for you.
Some ideas for fueling include:
- Commercial gels (e.g. Gu, Clif Shot, Humagel)
- Commercial chews (e.g. Clif Bloks, Sport Beans, SKratch Chews)
- Candy (e.g. jelly beans, gummy bears, M&Ms)
- Homemade chews made with fruit juice and gelatin (e.g. Fruit Endurance Gel Blocks Recipe)
- Dried fruit (e.g. apricots, dates)
- Sports drinks (e.g. Gatorade, Skratch, Nuun)
Some products may upset your stomach and intestines on a run. You need to try fueling on your training runs well before a race to see what works best. You don’t want to waste precious time in line at the port-o-potty at a race if you want your best time possible. On a training run, time doesn’t matter as much. So try different types of fuel when training.
Supporting your muscles during a run makes sense
If you support your muscles during your run, they are less likely to give you pain and grief later when you are done. While you may still be sore, you won’t be as sore as you may have been if you didn’t treat your body right. You are setting up your muscles for a faster recovery too.
A Note about Rhabdomyolysis
Rab-doh-what? Rab-doh-my-o-lye-sis! But you can call it rhabdo. It is a rare condition that can occur in long distance runners. It is a medical emergency.
Exertional rhabdomyolysis can occur during extreme and prolonged exertion during marathons and ultramarathons. It is the breakdown of muscle causing death of the muscle fibers. The dead fibers release myoglobin into the blood stream. The body can handle a little bit of free myoglobin in circulation, but it is not prepared for massive amounts that occur in rhabdomyolysis. Large amounts of myoglobin damage the kidneys and lead to kidney failure. It is a medical condition that needs immediate medical attention. Luckily there is a good chance for full recovery if treated properly.
Rhabdo usually occurs in runners who have not properly trained for the distance and pace they are doing. Remember, you need to gradually increased your training. Stick to the 10% rule that I mentioned earlier. Put a plan in place to train and reach your goals.
Rhabdo can also occur if the weather is hot and heat stroke is eminent. It is also more likely to occur if you are dehydrated. Some illnesses and medications can also increase the risk for rhabdo. So, also train smart and be prepared to make minor adjustments in your plan based on the weather and how you feel. Slow down, keep it short or do your hard runs on a different day if you need to.
Signs of rhabdo include the following:
- dark brown colored urine
- muscle pain and weakness
- nausea or vomiting
- dizziness or confusion
Luckily, rhabdomyolysis is rare.
Stay Tuned for Part Two of the Essential Guide to Muscle Recovery for Runners
In Part Two of this series, I will tell you all about the next phases of muscle recovery. We will chat about what you should do immediately after your run up to several days after when your muscles actually recover and repair themselves. This is when you may experience soreness, including Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). I will tell you some some of the science behind muscle recovery. And I will tell you some handy tips to help you recover quickly.
Special Note: I want to thank Sherri for the photo of her gorgeous legs. Sherri is a runner and body builder. She works out at Nexus Health and Fitness Centre. She works hard and it shows. Thanks also to Ashley who was our photographer. The featured photo is at the top of this article.
Tell us your favorite ways to fuel on your run in the comments below. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?