Valuable Training Recovery Habits

woman in gray crew neck shirt running on brown soil during daytime

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I don’t get a lot of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) during training. Incidentally, I had some a couple days ago after an interval workout, though I also hadn’t been training that much and I’m ramping back up to a normal training volume.

I’ve been able to train 7-10 hours per week over the years despite a full time job in Chicago and other commitments. A lot of that is creatively integrating training into my commute by running to train stations or all the way home from work, sure.

But those daily 4-7 mile runs, especially with some true speedwork sessions during the week and long runs during the weekend, not to mention all the work and walking and errands I did when I wasn’t running… could have burned me out quickly had I not developed effective recovery habits to follow between work and all those runs.

Even if you aren’t running 6 miles in your work clothes right after getting off work, many of the habits that have helped me can help you as well. In fact, the busier you are and the more you train, the more important it becomes that you adopt as many of these habits as you can:

1. Dynamic stretching.

Dynamic stretching is done through motion that extends and retracts key body parts, rather than static stretching which is done by holding your body still in a stretch.

Over time, with work, your lower body range of motion can tighten up with a lack of dynamic stretching. Doing so, especially after a workout, can help keep muscles, ligaments and joints limber by ‘reminding’ them of their full range of motion following the more regimented running range of motion.

Your dynamic stretching doesn’t need to be anything complex, though you could find and adopt a full pre/post run routine if you really wanted to. A search for ‘dynamic stretching’ will show you a bunch of short routines, and honestly just about any of them are okay.


Leg swings! Image by Yuri Elkaim.

All I ever do for dynamic stretching most of the time is front to back leg swings, often after a run and less often before a run (though I’ll frequently do them before a quality workout like speedwork).

You can also do some upper body dynamic work like arm circles/swings if you find you’re tight in your shoulders, neck or torso.

Avoid static stretching unless you have finished a workout, and plan on no quality workouts within the next day or two. Static stretching (while somewhat beneficial) tends to tighten up muscles and ligaments, and in recent years experts discovered that doing so before exercise is actually harmful and increases the incidence of injury because the tightened parts don’t react as well to exercise. So make sure any stretching done before workouts is dynamic (moving) rather than static (held still).

2. Eating within half an hour of the workout.

The conventional notion that eating within 30 minutes after the workout is vital to recovery was recently called into question.

The reality is that the body processes nutrition at an accelerated rate during and for some time after exercise. You could, stomach permitting, even eat something right before your workout and have that nutrition available for accelerated processing during and after your workout.

A likely reason I was rarely beat up with DOMS is because I often ate something right before or right after my runs. The available protein quickly began the rebuilding process on my freshly damaged muscle tissue. Any available carbohydrate that wasn’t burned during exercise quickly began restoration of my glycogen stores. Any available fat was burned and helped preserve brain and hormonal processes while the other nutrition could be utilized to spur activity and subsequent recovery.

I usually carried an energy bar, energy drink, or some sort of snack on my long runs. If I didn’t have that, I stopped and bought something to eat before or after the run. This wasn’t every bit of energy my body needed for the run itself or for the subsequent recovery, but it gave a head start on recovery after the run. Typically, I could run easy as soon as the following day, and could resume quality workouts within a couple days if desired.

3. Eating a meal within two hours of the end of the workout

That pre/post run snack was helpful to kickstart the recovery process. But having a nutrient rich meal within two hours of finishing the workout is the other, much more important step. How I feel in the days following a quality workout often depends on what I eat within two hours of finishing the workout.

When I don’t eat well, I definitely feel more tired and more sore in the days following. But it’s rare I don’t eat well within two hours of a good workout, because after that much work I usually want to eat a lot and soon. So I do.

An ideal post-run meal:

  • Is clean and as non-processed as possible, with whole food ingredients
  • Provides 30 grams or more of protein
  • Provides some clean fruit/vegetable/starch carbohydrate
  • How much carbohydrate? 15g per mile at least. More is fine.

Yes, you can kill two birds with one stone and just eat a big meal within 30 minutes of finishing the workout. This hits step #2 and this step #3 all at once. Mission accomplished. In Chicago I often bookended long runs by finishing them at a store or a good brunch place. I walked in the door and had a big breakfast. Bingo.

Bearing in mind that some runners are either vegan/vegetarian or low-carb:

Animal-Free adjustments:

Combo proteins of rice/beans are valuable. Plus, you almost certainly want to consume a lot of carbohydrates, and rice/beans are flush with carbohydrates. You can’t go too far wrong eating rice and beans as the staple of your post-workout meal. Lentils are fine as a stand-alone alternative to rice and beans, if your body digests them well.

Low-carb adjustments:

Since you’re skipping carbs, you probably want to include a lot of beta-carotene rich vegetables. Whether you focus on rebuilding glycogen or ketones, carrots and peppers will help your muscles recover from the wear and tear of your workout by reducing inflammation that can prolong recovery. The carb content of such vegetables generally isn’t high and is mostly soluble fiber anyway. One cup of whatever vegetables you prefer, hot or cold, is probably fine.

4. Get at least 1-2 hours of non-electronic relaxation

Whether you do this at the end of the day, right after your workout, or during midday… you want to block off 1-2 hours where you relax without a computer, smart phone or television. Though light music might help the mood, you might even want to go without music to avoid using any electronics. Wearing your smart watch is okay, as long as its mobile notification features are turned off.

Disconnecting from the blue light of a screen gives your eyes and your mind a chance to relax, one underrated element of recovery. And the absence of any operating electronics reduces exposure to sound or notifications, which also reduces the amount of interference your mind has to process.

Mostly, though, this is just a chance to mentally and psychologically relax. A stressed and occupied mind slows your overall record, since your body’s functions are an extension of your brain’s function.

If you’re near a park and the weather’s cooperating, that’s a great place to spend the time, whether you sit and hang out or go for a walk. But you can totally do this sitting at home and reading a book, writing in a journal or doing anything else that doesn’t require anything electronic.

Give yourself at least one full hour (your smartwatch is allowed mostly to help you track time), and from there you can spend another hour disconnected or get back to your digitally connected life as desired.

5. Shutting down for bed at least 10 hours before you need to wake up

The lights in the room aren’t the only thing you ought to shut off at bedtime. A lot of people go to bed with their phones in hand or with the TV on. Such people also tend to struggle with sleep. Doing this creates a couple of recovery problems.

  • The stimulation prevents you from relaxing into sleep, delaying the start of your sleep time.
  • The blue light interferes with your circadian rhythms whether your eyes are open or closed. It’s telling your brain that it’s not night time, and that you should be awake. This delays the start of your sleep time.

Everyone knows it’s best to shut everything off when going to bed. But few actually do it. Your recovery will get better if you make sure to do it. A solid amount of sleep is vital to overall recovery between workouts. You can’t workout suitably hard for too long if you’re not sleeping well between workouts.

I recommend that the latest you shut everything off is 10 hours before you need to wake up. This gives you 1-2 hours to mentally wind down and drift off to sleep, with enough time to ensure a solid 8 hours of sleep.

For example, let’s say I want to wake up at 6am tomorrow. I would want to shut everything off and turn it around 8pm. This gives me ample time to drift off before 9-10pm and ensure that I sleep well that night.

How well you sleep, of course, is also dependent on how active you were today, how well you ate at the end of the day, if you had any stimulants or alcohol in the afternoon or later, etc. But assuming all your habits are sound, shutting everything off 10+ hours before waking ensures you get the sleep you need.

What if you’re not tired? Hint: You probably didn’t work hard enough today. Be more active tomorrow and beyond. You’ll find it easier to get to sleep when you go to bed tired after a satisfyingly busy day.

6. Walking 5-10 minutes every couple hours

If you live in a big city where you need to walk or use transit to get around, you almost don’t even need to think about this outside of work. And if your job requires you stay on your feet, you probably don’t need to think about it at all.

Every couple hours between your workout and bedtime, get up and walk easy for a few minutes. Get your circulation moving, because this will cycle out waste products in your recovering lower body and cycle in blood with fresh nutrients. It’ll also stimulate your recovering muscles in kind, aiding with overall recovery.

If you work at a desk, you should give this thought during the workday. Every couple hours, get away from your desk and walk for a few minutes. Don’t just walk to the restroom or break room and back (unless it takes several minutes to walk to the restroom!). Go far enough away that you need to walk for a few minutes round-trip.

In my last Chicago office job, I worked in an office big enough that walking one floor down to the break area or their restrooms was enough. At my previous job, however, we had a smaller footprint and I would need to go outside and around the block to get a walk in.

No matter how sore you are, a brief intermittent walk is worth hurting a little bit as long as you’re not injured (and if you’re injured, your recovery should include no working out for a while until you’ve effectively healed). It will actually help heal any soreness faster, as long as the exertion is easy.

7. Eating one serving of fruit or vegetables at least 2-3 times/day

Fruit and vegetables are full of valuable vitamins and fiber, including inflammation-fighting beta carotene and antioxidants. They also help bolster your immune system. Plus, when it comes to sleep, many are rich in the potassium and magnesium needed for effective sleep. Effective recovery should include a regular dose of fruit and vegetables.

One cup (8oz) of whatever fruit or vegetables you like in their native form, uncooked or boiled or baked in coconut/olive oil, is probably 100% acceptable as part of a meal.

Including one cup (8oz) of either as your 30 minute post-recovery snack is helpful, and including them in your 2 hour window meal is a huge boost. Do both, and that’s probably a suitable minimum of fruit and vegetables for the day. You could skip them entirely until the next workout and probably be okay. But don’t let me stop you from including them in your other meals and snacks!

8. Eating 30+ grams of protein at every meal

Muscles require protein for recovery. Many people don’t get enough protein, or a consistent dose of quality protein. Someone active should probably consume around 1g per pound of body weight (2.2g per kilogram) to maintain muscle damaged from intense or high volume training.

Many will notice this is way more than most medical experts or organizations recommend, even for high level endurance athletes. I even posit that a lot of the long term health problems that endurance athletes experience is due to a lack of needed protein in their diets.

You typically only see my protein recommendations from personal trainers who work with bodybuilders. But while those individuals may get bulky and strong, they also don’t do much of any endurance training. So don’t worry about all that added protein making you bulky. Your training and overall lifestyle will prevent bulking. But the extra protein will help preserve all your other much-needed muscle.

This isn’t just to maximize training benefits, but also to preserve your health as you age and muscle wastes with age. Old adults with more overall muscle generally experience a better old age than those with less muscle.

While I recommend a bit of protein within 30 minutes of a workout, you definitely want to get at least 30+ grams with every meal between workouts, especially the cruicial meal within 2 hours of your workout. A constant influx of your muscles’ building blocks will spur and maximize continuous recovery between your workouts. You will notice more strength and power to your running in subsequent workouts over the long run.

One key caveat is that protein consumption ought to be downplayed right before a key workout or during that workout. Protein being digested during intense exercise is more likely to be used (ineffciently) as energy to fuel the workout, rather that rebuilding energy to aid muscle recovery. In fact, weightlifters and bodybuilders may be making a mistake pounding protein shakes early in their lifting sessions! They’re better off waiting until at least close to the end of their workout, when it’s less likely that the protein ingested will be burned as aerobic/anaerobic energy.

So I’d avoid pounding protein shakes during your marathon (I actually tried this during a race once, and it did not go well! The thick liquid tends not to digest quickly). However, protein consumed as part of a balanced meal 2+ hours before a workout is okay. Everything should be effectively digested and metabolically sorted by the time you’re running hard or lifting.

9. Drinking 8-16 oz water before and after bed

Most of us are chronically dehydrated. While it’s true we don’t *need* 8+ cups of water per day to survive, being fully hydrated does help our circulation and in turn the efficiency of our bodies. Full hydration also better lubricates joints, tendons and ligaments, ensuring healthier function thereof.

I wouldn’t pound a gallon of water a day, as some have before. But you can probably get close to suitable hydration by simply drinking a cup or glass of water before bed, and after waking up. From there, incidental drinking to thirst as needed should be enough.

You dehydrate quite a bit during the night (and the effect is exaggerated if like me you live in a dry climate, or even if you run heated air conditioning during the night). This overnight dehydration limits blood circulation and in turn recovery.

Getting some water in your system before bed helps mitigate this effect and aids recovery. In turn, the sooner after waking that you drink some water, the more quickly you remedy lingering dehydration from having slept.

Don’t fret so much about the risk of waking up at night to pee, as long as you don’t shotgun a glass of water right before bed. The key to avoiding the need for overnight bathroom trips is to do two things:

  1. Fill a cup or glass an hour before bed. Drink it gradually during the hour beforehand. This gives your bladder the chance to raise the flag and get you to pee out any excess before you turn in. For best effects, wait until a couple minutes before turning in for bed to pee, to hit the sack with a bladder as empty as possible.
  2. Make sure the last thing you eat today has some salt content. This is probably the one time that it’s okay to eat something processed, provided everything else you’ve eaten today was healthy: The high sodium content of processed food will make it more likely that your body retains water instead of needing to pee it right back out.

Note: The only bummer of eating salty food before is that if you like to weigh yourself in the morning, you may carry as much as an extra pound of water weight. Retained water has weight, of course! But that retained water will flush out over time during the following day if you eat clean, especially if you like to work out in the morning (sweat!). Either way, don’t worry about it.

Speaking of the morning after, you want to start your day the way you ended it, with a cup or glass of water. Since you’re dehydrated, the water addresses that, while also giving you a head start on today’s water consumption. From there, you can drink to thirst at your leisure.

Beginning and ending your day with water is no less than half the battle, and for many would be a huge improvement over their current hydration habits.

Training hard almost demands that you also recover hard. And it’s not a matter of getting massages, drinking the right brand of protein shakes, booking an appointment with facilities than have those compression sleeves for your legs, or anything of the sort.

Effective recovery is a lifestyle of positive habits. Effective training is about more than the workouts you do. It’s about what you do between the workouts to set yourself up for success is the next workout and beyond.

The above tips will help get you closer to recovering the way you need to, so you can train and race the way you want to. Best of luck!

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One thought on “Valuable Training Recovery Habits

  1. […] to how nutrition and recovery works, effective hydration is much more about your body of work in the preceding days than about […]

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