Improving Recovery to Maximize Fitness Gains

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

The fall racing season is upon us and many of you may be in the throes of training for a fall marathon or half marathon, or you may be targeting some shorter events in the coming weeks and months. Regardless, one important aspect of training that often gets neglected this time of year is recovery. In last month’s column I talked about the importance of taking easy days between your harder efforts and the role recovery plays in taking advantage of super-compensation, the body’s adaptation to stress that allows for fitness improvements. This month I will discuss some more specific ways to improve recovery and maximize fitness gains.

Fluid & Fuel Post Run

Let’s start out looking at a few ways to improve recovery after a hard workout. The first thing you want to make sure you do is to eat and drink something immediately after your workout. Fluid intake this time of year is particularly important, and loss of 1-2% body weight can have dramatic impacts on performance. You should replace fluids immediately, at the rate of roughly 3 cups for every pound of weight loss. For longer runs over 60 minutes you should be replacing fluid during the run. Eating a few hundred calories containing carbohydrates and protein at roughly a 4-1 ratio in the first 30 minutes post run is key to starting the recovery process. Additionally, getting a full meal within 2 hours improves glycogen resynthesis and promotes quicker recovery. At ZAP we are adamant our athletes bring something to eat and drink with them after every training session.

Foam Rolling

One of the hotly debated topics in sports science is the benefits to stretching, a debate I will avoid for this discussion. However, many people claim that stretching post run improves recovery, and unfortunately there isn’t much evidence to support this claim. The best thing you can do to help facilitate tissue repair, or rather to maintain tissue fiber alignment, is to get yourself a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, or one of a variety of other tools to self massage post workout. This is a battle that is never ending for distance runners, the knot in the quad, the tight IT band, the sore calf. But if you do some daily maintenance with self massage, or actual massage as you can afford it, you can stay on top of these little nicks and promote healthy running – the key to distance running success!

Ice Bath

Always remember if you have an injury you are going to ice, or if you are going to soak your legs in cold water for an ice bath – my next tip for recovery – make sure you do any type of massage beforehand. Ice baths, soaking your legs in water that is around 50 degrees, are a great way to reduce inflammation after a hard workout or long run and speed up the recovery process. You can use a bath tub, or if you’re as fortunate as we are at ZAP, a cold mountain stream, to soak your legs for 10-15 minutes. It will leave your legs feeling much better in the days following a harder session.

Evening Exercise

One thing we do with our ZAP athletes after harder morning workouts and long runs is some kind of light exercise in the afternoon. On these days our athletes do a short recovery run in the afternoon or a light spin on the stationary bike. Getting out again later in the day for something very gentle to move the muscles improves blood flow and mobilizes the muscles to facilitate quicker recovery. The feedback from our athletes has been that they feel much better the following day. The alternative, as was my college routine, is to sit around watching football all afternoon hobbling on stiff legs back and forth to the kitchen.


In between those runs and most other days of the week our athletes take naps. I know for many naps, and sleep in general, is a luxury you may not be afforded. However, naps are a crucial part of an elite athletes training regimen – I know, tough life. Your body produces growth hormone while you sleep. This may sound familiar as many athletes across all sports have been busted for taking the synthetic version, but the body produces it naturally after 50-90 minutes of sleep. For athletes, being able to naturally produce growth hormone twice a day aids in recovery. Being able to get a full night of sleep is another crucial aspect of proper recovery, maintaining energy levels, and tissue repair. Everyone is a little different, but your goal should be able to get enough sleep that you wake up naturally. Yes, that means turning off Duck Dynasty and stop depending on the alarm clock. You can watch it online tomorrow.

Short Double Day

Our weekly schedule at ZAP is to follow our long run day with 2 short runs the following day. Two shorter runs the day after harder effort is much better for recovery than one longer run. If you are finding yourself particularly beat up trying to fit in your weekly goal volume, try breaking up the days after harder or longer sessions into two shorter runs. We do it twice a week with our athletes and it provides much of the same benefits I described with doing a very gentle run or cross training session after a hard workout. Breaking up the run speeds along the recovery process by moving the muscles without subjecting the body to the type of breakdown you accumulate with one longer run.

2 Up / 1 Down Training Weeks

Another important training tool to avoid breaking the body down week after week is to structure your weekly training in a “2 weeks up / 1 week down” format. This is a three week cycle of 2 weeks at peak volume and then 1 week 10-15% down from that. A typical 3 week mileage cycle for someone running a peak of 50 miles a week might look like this: 50, 50, 43. This allows for a week where your body can properly recover and adapt to the 2 weeks of greater stress. Lastly, when you’ve finished your key race, take a true recovery period of 1-3 weeks where you do very little running with perhaps a little bit of cross training. Then start building back up into your next training cycle, knowing that the ability to recovery properly is what makes you a better runner.

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*This Article Originally Appeared in the September 2013 Issue of Running Journal