The Lost Art of Recovery

A runner stretches under a bridge

Many runners believe that every workout should leave you in a puddle of sweat or completely exhausted, or else you’re “losing” at fitness.

“Most runners don’t like hearing the word rest,” says Formula Running Center coach and physical therapist assistant, Alison Staples. “But post-run recovery is imperative to gaining fitness and includes everything from sleep and mobility work to what we eat and drink after runs.”

Recovery is non-negotiable in order to be successful in your training and it plays a big role in your results. If you don’t take a break, your body will end up doing it for you through injury or burnout.

Recovery vs. Rest

A runner stands in a quad stretch

There is a difference between true recovery and simply resting. Recovery involves what we do post-run. It can be anything from stretching and mobility work to applying heat or ice to our joints, or even what we consume after the run. All of these affect how we repair our bodies after runs and how we progress in our training.

On the other hand, rest is giving your body a break. Whether that’s decreased activity (or active rest) or simply doing nothing. It’s important to listen to your body and do what works best for you. When you overwork your body, it is more susceptible to injury. Resting will help you avoid this.

According to Dr. Deena Casiero of UCONN Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, in order to prevent injury, we must rest and recover. Casiero says, “Rest is critical to avoiding injury and seeing gains in your training program. You cannot get faster or stronger without allowing your body time to heal and recover.”

Don’t be afraid to schedule a break from running once or twice a week, or even more frequently, if your body needs it. The exact length of recovery depends on each runner, but the more miles you put in, the more recovery you will need. For example, after you are done training and completing a marathon, at least one full week off from running is recommended.

It’s okay to do light exercise such as walks or bike rides, but nothing too rigorous. It’s crucial to decrease the amount of stress on the body and allow it to heal from training and race day.

Active Recovery

If you are a person who has the mentality of “no days off,” active recovery is for you. Active recovery involves performing low-intensity exercise after a strenuous workout. Examples include walking, yoga and swimming.

Active recovery helps keep muscles loose and also helps prevent injury by engaging different muscles as well as the same muscles in different ways. A 2018 study examining post-exercise recovery found that active recovery can reduce lactic acid build up in the muscles, removing metabolic waste, increasing blood flow and reducing muscle tears and pain.

Active recovery is a good way to keep moving, but it’s critical to make sure your activity is less intense than your normal runs or workouts. As long as you’re not recovering from a recent injury, active recovery works well for most runners.

Recovery Methods

A woman stands and stretches her hamstring after a run

There many methods and options available for running recovery and choosing the perfect one is all about what works best for you. Here are a few recovery methods to implement in your next post run recovery routine.

Flexibility and Mobility

Keeping your muscles and joints loose is key to performing well in your runs. Start with dynamic moves to warm up your muscles pre-run and then do some static stretching post-run.

Physical therapist Dr. Micah Wells, suggests, “after your run, it is essential to facilitate some static stretching. Static stretching is when you’re in non-moving postures (i.e. standing, sitting, or laying down) while your muscle tissue is in an elongated position.”

Wells suggests this hamstring stretch post-run:

Lying on your back with a yoga strap connected to your foot, try to lift your leg as close to your face as possible while keeping your knee straight. Hold that position for at least 20 seconds, but no longer than 60 seconds.

On days off from running, try cross training with a low-impact, multipurpose recovery session like pilates or yoga. Staples says, “incorporating yoga into your weekly plan is a great way to work on total body mobility, stretching, balance and strength all in one.”

Massage Therapy

If your muscles are sore or tight, it’s crucial to make sure they heal during your recovery days. USATF-certified running coach Jason Fitzgerald recommends scheduling a massage after a hard run. Post-run massages help stimulate your circulatory system, improve blood flow to your muscles and release waste products at the cellular level in your body. Just be sure to take it easy for 24 hours after the massage so you don’t ruin the recovery process.

Physical Therapy

Beyond self-guided recovery, physical therapy guided by a professional is also a great option for runners with vigorous training schedules. Often, we hear about physical therapy and think it’s for those recovering from an injury. However, all runners can use physical therapy to help with day-to-day recovery.

Dr. Micah Wells says, “Physical therapy is essential to recovery because it allows for a highly trained individual who knows and understands the body to assist with your recovery. Outside of assigning specific exercises to fit your needs, a physical therapist can perform multiple manual (hands-on) therapy techniques to assist with improving muscle function, which results in better recovery time and allows for prevention of aggravated pain or injuries.”

It’s important to do the assigned exercises at home once you leave your physical therapy appointments as well. It takes more than the occasional visit to see real improvements, particularly after an injury. Consistent physical therapy work can not only aid recovery––it can improve running performance, too.


Of course, after a long run, we need to refuel to help replenish our muscles, but what and when we eat play a huge role in the recovery process as well. Carbohydrates and proteins should be our main food groups immediately after running. When we consume carbs directly following a run, it maximizes muscle glycogen replenishment, which aids in stimulating muscle tissue repair and adaptation.

For the best results, you should aim to eat within 30 minutes after completing your run. In addition, improving the effectiveness of your glycogen storage will help give you even more efficient energy for your next run.

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