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Post-Race Recovery -- An Art or a Science?

Date: 
03/28/2012 - 09:30

By Lena Hollmann
Hollman,_Lena.jpg__.jpgI am tossing and turning in my bed, unable to sleep. Sore and aching leg muscles are keeping me awake. I want to take a hot bath to loosen them up, but I am staying in a hotel and don’t want to wake my neighbors. It is the wee hours of the morning of February 19, 2012, and the previous day I had run the Myrtle Beach half marathon in 1:51:22, bettering my time in Houston the previous month by more than two minutes. And now I was paying for it!

Post race leg soreness is nothing new to me of course, or to any competitive runner. The experts call it Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short. It occurs when the muscles have to work much harder than they are accustomed to, causing micro tears in the muscle fibers. The body immediately starts to repair these tears, and also builds some additional muscle tissue, to make us stronger when it is time for our next race. The process is the same after weight training, where overload (i.e. lifting more weight or doing more reps that we are accustomed to) will also result in muscle soreness and repair. The good news is that this healing process requires energy, so we are burning extra calories while it takes place!

But none of this mattered to me as I lay in my bed with aching legs. I just wanted to fall asleep! Eventually I did, but the next day I was still sore. So I turned to my friends for advice. Most of my running buddies are marathoners, and some have even done ultras. For them post-race soreness is nothing new, so somehow I figured they would have the magic bullet that would get rid of it once and for all. I on the other hand had concentrated on 5Ks and 10Ks lately, until I started running half marathons again after changing age groups last year.

I used to run marathons in my younger days though, and I remember getting sore. But back then you learned to live with it. It was a badge of honor of sorts, to barely be able to walk down the stairs because you ran a marathon two days earlier. Those were simpler times, when the only things we did to recover from a long run or race were taking a short cool down jog or walk, and maybe hitting the tub later in the day. Plus having a beer or two!

Fast forward to 2012, and you can find all kinds of advice in the running magazines, and on the Internet. Not to mention all the commercial products that are competing with each other on the market. There are numerous sports drinks and supplements, all claiming to speed up recovery.

But here is what the experts all seem to agree on: We should do a gradual cool down after intense exercise, i.e. keep moving by walking slowly after a hard run or race instead of stopping completely. This increases blood circulation, and prevents blood pooling in the legs. We also need to replenish glycogen that has been lost from the muscles as soon as possible, by having a post-race snack that is rich in carbohydrates and also contains some protein. A massage won’t hurt either, to loosen up tight muscles and increase blood flow to areas that are sore and tired.

I did all of the above after my half marathon in Myrtle Beach. I walked from the finish line to the gear pickup and gathering area, got a massage, and drank some of the chocolate milk that was given out as a post-race refreshment. But what else could I have done? My friends suggested taking a hot bath, and electrolyte replacement tablets. I had thought about getting in the tub (see above), but hadn’t considered taking the tablets.

One note regarding hot baths: Experts recommend putting it off until several hours after racing, and my friends didn’t tell me to hop in first thing after crossing the finish line either. Immediately following a race there will be some swelling and inflammation in your muscles, and we are therefore better off taking a cold bath or shower instead.

Walking, chocolate milk, massage, hot and cold baths, and electrolyte tablets could all play a role in my race recovery. And they all have one thing in common: I have some control over whether or not to take advantage of them. But there is one thing I cannot do anything about, and it is that I am getting older every day. With increasing age comes increasing recovery time, as our muscles and tissues aren’t as efficient in repairing themselves as they used to be.

Post-race soreness, and proper recovery from races and long or hard training runs, can be a major issue for masters runners. Recovery takes longer than when we were younger, but we may not realize it or even want to admit it. We can still run marathons (although I opt to stick to the half), however we have to accept that it will take more time to recover and the injury risk is higher. We can speed up the process by intervening in various ways, but we still have to give the body enough time to heal itself. Normally it takes up to 48 hours for muscles to repair themselves completely, maybe even more for older runners.

This is why it is not recommended to race or do hard workouts on consecutive days, especially not as we get older. We need to give the muscles and tendons enough time to heal. As the muscle tissue repairs itself, you are counteracting the process by breaking it down if you push yourself hard several days in a row. It is a little like shoveling the driveway when it is still snowing.

While proper recovery is essential for every runner, we masters runners must give it some extra attention. Younger runners bounce back more easily than we do after hard efforts. The same principle applies for the warm up, i.e. a younger runner can violate more recommendations without getting punished. For example, a 16 year old may get away with hopping right off the couch and running 100 yard sprints (although I wouldn’t recommend it!), but if a 60 year old tries to do the same thing, he would most likely end up on the injury list.

So, what can we do to recover as quickly as possible after a long, hard race?

First of all, we must realize that recovery begins before we get to the starting line. We must make sure we are properly hydrated beforehand, and continue taking in enough fluid during the race. Optimal amounts vary depending on the individual, and also on weather conditions. There have been numerous articles written on hydration and electrolyte replacement during a long run or race, and I will not go into details here and now, except mentioning that dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can have an impact on your post race recovery.

If you have the opportunity and can handle it, get into a tub of COLD (or lukewarm) water as soon as possible afterwards. It will reduce post-race inflammation and swelling and speed up recovery. And if you want to hit the hot tub or Jacuzzi also, be my guest! But wait until the next day, or several hours at least.

Have a healthy snack, preferably within 30 minutes after crossing the finish line. Some options are bananas, bagels with cheese or peanut butter, or everybody’s favorite -- chocolate milk!

And have a massage. It is best to wait a few hours, although you can often take advantage of free massages at the races. If you can’t get a massage, a foam roller or “the Stick” are the next best options.

Continue hydrating. In addition to water, you want to have a recovery sports drink or tablets. These products are specially formulated to replace fluids and electrolytes that you lost during a run or race.

And take it easy! If you ran a full marathon or a half, you want to take a break from running for several days afterwards. I know this is easier said than done, but the body needs to heal and time is the best healer. Cross training activities (cycling, swimming, yoga, etc.) will keep circulation going in the muscles and speed up recovery.

Believe it or not, I actually like to be a little sore after a hard run, since it reminds me that I had a good race or workout, and that I wasn’t “sandbagging”. I will have to find my happy medium, where I can feel the effort without being a basket case afterwards. And I realize there is no guarantee that I will be successful every time, since race recovery seems to be as much an art as it is a science!