Expert Advice from our Resident Coach on Recovery for Trail and Ultra Runners
So, what is recovery?
I define recovery as a type of training, consisting of activities and practices that help your body to repair all of the damage that has occurred with recent races and workouts, and to reset to its optimal energy levels. By recovering, you enable your body to optimally absorb all the recent training you accomplished, before again adding more training load and stimulus.
In this article, I’ll share some of the most effective and low-cost recovery techniques for trail and ultra runners, and why you should consider trying them!
Everyone will differ in how many rest days they need per week, but a general rule is to schedule one rest day, on a set day every week. This isn’t a day to go for a big cross training workout. It’s a day to relax, and make more time for some of the recovery activities mentioned below! Many of my athletes have their rest days on Mondays each week, as it tends to be a natural day for recovery after more training on the weekend. Some athletes may need more rest days, and that’s great too! Sometimes trail and ultra runners are really bad at rest days, as we’re used to pushing ourselves, and sometimes our view of what’s “easy” is a bit skewed. If you’re not sure if your planned activity counts as a rest day, I’d say this: could you do this in your sandals, assuming you’re not wearing running sandals? Other good tests: would you invite your toddler, or one of your grandparents with you?
It’s free, and it’s fun! Sleep is one of the most important recovery activities. Aim for 8-10 hours, which will help your body repair any damage from recent workouts. If you can, try to eat a little bit of protein before you go to bed (like some high-protein yogurt, or a handful of almonds) to aid in this process! These foods, while being delicious, also contain branched-chain amino acids, which are helpful for muscle repair and immune regulation.
Like sleep, nutrition is also a key pillar for recovery. During big training and race weeks, our bodies are in major calorie and nutrient deficits, so it’s important to diligently prioritize nutrition as a core part of recovery. Make sure you’re eating plenty of your favourite foods, with sufficient carbohydrates, protein, and colourful veggies! During training, try to eat a snack within 30 minutes of finishing a workout, which is when your body has a special window of easier absorption. (This also will help you get through showering and changing, until you can find or make a full meal!) Sometimes it can be tough to eat after a hard effort. In this case, go for liquids: smoothies, soups, and stews are great sources of much-needed carbs and protein! If in doubt, air on the side of over-eating post-run or race.
Mobility refers to the active movement of a joint through its full range of motion, and mobility training encompasses strength training, flexibility, and coordination. Mobility training has key benefits for trail runners, as it helps us move well, thereby being able to run faster and more efficiently, and reducing the prevalence of injuries. We lose mobility as we age, and/or if we sit at a desk all day, so these factors can exaggerate any lack of mobility.
Although trail running has a bit more variety in its musculoskeletal stress than road running, it is still a very repetitive motion, and it’s important to incorporate mobility training for effective recovery, especially during weeks of higher volume and intensity.
There are many simple methods for maintaining and improving mobility at home, like foam rolling with a foam roller or lacrosse ball, or doing 15-20 minutes of home yoga or strength training through YouTube. A great strategy is to create a pre-run or post-run routine, choosing a few key exercises that target personalized weak areas, for a total of 3-5 minutes pre or post-run. (It’s better to frequently engage in 3-5 minutes of mobility work, than infrequently doing long 1-hour sessions.) In addition, athletes with access to extended health benefits can schedule regular Registered Massage Therapy sessions, and/or preventative physiotherapy appointments, to regularly identify weaknesses in mobility, and address them before they become issues.
In addition to the day of complete rest (ie Mondays), it’s also very helpful to schedule some active rest days, especially around harder training days. Active rest means doing light exercise, where you keep your heart rate, and both volume and intensity low, while doing some form of movement. These sessions help with the recovery process by stimulating circulation and mobility, while accumulating a minimal amount to your training load. For trail and ultra runners, active rest sessions could be an easy 30-45 minute run, an easy hike with a friend, or a gentle cycle/spin or mountain bike ride, as some examples. For athletes who enjoy other sports, active rest days can be a good way to incorporate those other sports, as long as it’s easy and relatively short.
Recovery is training
Whatever methods you choose, it’s important to remember that recovery is an important part of training. Try to sprinkle recovery into your week, and to dedicate some weeks that are more recovery-oriented, especially after a tough race or training block. Above all, listen to your body. Sometimes you may not have recovery scheduled, but you may need it earlier than planned! It always pays off to listen to those early body whispers.
Alicia Woodside is an endurance runner and coach living in Squamish, BC. She has completed over 40 ultra-marathons and ran for Canada in the 50-mile trail and 100km road events.
If you have any questions about training, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will see if we can answer them in a future column!