Before Jackie Homan runs a marathon, she gears up by stretching twice as much as usual and tackling 10- and 12-mile routes around her neighborhood in Findlay, Ohio. But Homan, who has been running for fun since she started cross-country as an eighth grader in 1993, has come to realize that recovery is just as important as prep.
And for her, restoring her body after an endurance event means doing virtually nothing at all.
“After a marathon, I don't run for an entire week so my body can recover,” she says. “I stretch for the next two days after the marathon, and I take a walk on day three, but that's it.”
Like Homan, athletes and sports medicine researchers have evolved in their understanding of training for endurance events. Before the early 1980s, training for a marathon or triathlon meant pushing hard before the big event and giving hardly any thought to what came after. But over the last few decades, experts began to appreciate that the recovery period was just as crucial.
When the body completes extreme feats of endurance—whether swimming, cycling, weight lifting, or distance running it undergoes physiological changes. During a marathon, for instance, muscles sustain microscopic tears, lactic acid (which causes cramps) builds up in the body, glycogen stores are severely (sometimes totally ) depleted, and blood is diverted from places like the gut and your kidneys to fuel the legs and lungs. A protracted recovery period allows muscles to heal and the body to return to its normal bio-chemical balance, which influences the success of future performances.
As the importance of the recovery period became even clearer, athletes started experimenting with different regimens. Today, it's not uncommon to see photos of runners submersing themselves in cryotherapy chambers or wearing compression socks to soothe overworked muscles.
After an endurance event, the body is still working hard – only this time, it's repairing the “damage” done from all the intensive exercise.
First, due to the microscopic tears in the muscle tissue, the body unleashes an inflammatory response to repair these tissues, which can result in muscle soreness and a decreased immune response. Given this, it's not uncommon for marathon runners or other athletes to develop an upper respiratory tract infection in the days following an event: One study of 1,800 runners who completed the Los Angeles Marathon showed that 13 percent reported an “infectious episode” in the weeks after the race, compared with just 2 percent of similarly trained runners who didn’t run the marathon.
During a race, the body’s core temperature will rise, sometimes up to 102 or 103 degrees. But after a race, temperatures drop abruptly as the body tries to cool itself, diverting blood flow from skeletal muscles to the skin. As a result, some marathoners might develop hypothermia, particularly as the sweat on their skin accelerates the cooling process. This is why you might see some runners wrapping themselves in mylar blankets post-marathon to keep them from losing too much heat.
When it comes to recovery, there are two schools of thought on how to do it best: The first is active recovery, where, like Jackie Homan, the athlete does light physical activity to engage sore muscles after a big workout. The other is passive recovery in which runners do almost nothing, allowing the muscles to rest completely. While rest is certainly important, some studies show that active recovery might speed up the process bydirecting blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to fatigued muscles. Researchers who studied mountain canoeists and football players in 2016 found as long as they engaged the muscles they used during their sport, it was more effective than doing nothing.
There are other ways to help the body rebuild.
After an extreme event, the body’s glycogen stores—what the body uses for energy during aerobic exercise, prior to burning protein—are zapped. To replenish these stores, dietitians suggest carb-loading, particularly in the first few hours after exercise. The American Council on Exercise says sports medicine experts recommend endurance athletes consume 0.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight in the first 30 minutes after exercise, repeating that every every two hours for up to six hours, before resuming their normal diet.
But protein is important, too: The body breaks it up into amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle fiber. While a sedentary person requires about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, someone who participates in endurance sports needs slightly more—anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram per day—to repair the damage done to their muscles during exercise. In fact, research has shown that eating protein in the first few days after an endurance event specifically helps facilitate muscle recovery.
Temperature is another factor. Many athletes believe they need to cool down their muscles after an endurance workout, but the research doesn’t always agree. For a 2017 study, researchers had subjects before one hour of an arm exercise, then heated some of the arms and cooled others for two hours. The subjects who got heat, did better when they were asked to perform another exercise, while those at lower temperatures did worse. It’s not clear if those results can be applied across the board: A 2007 study found that cold-water immersion was more helpful than hot water when measuring performance four to five days after a fatiguing cycling workout.
Fluid levels post-workout are another important consideration. Although it’s important to hydrate in order to replace the fluids lost during the marathon through sweat, too much water before, during, or after the race can actually be dangerous. Researchers say that overloading with water “beyond the dictates of normal thirst” paired with a sodium deficit can actually induce a condition called exercise-associated hyponatremia, or EAH. Athletes have suffered mild to severe (and in some cases, fatal) EAH after cycling, swimming, running and other endurance sports—so drinking only to quench thirst and not significantly more, experts say, is the best way to recover.
But more than anything, experts and athletes agree that rest is the most important factor when it comes to recovery.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to reduced muscle glycogen stores and can negatively impact recovery by causing muscle atrophy. Although experts recommend anywhere between seven and nine hours of sleep per night for the average population, marathon runners may need a couple hours more, particularly in the first several days after an event. Amazingly, the body actually can make white blood cells more efficiently during the sleep cycle, as well as release hormones that heal cell and tissue damage and reduce inflammation in the body.
Like Jackie Homan and the millions of others who participate in endurance events each year, athletes who want to adequately recover would be wise to skip the gym and hit the hay instead.