Every runner dreads the post-run aches and pains resulting from pounding the pavement on training days. All runners love how running makes them feel, but only when they’re not running – right? We feel you. Type 2 fun all the way!
In this guide to post-running recovery, we’ll look at why you feel that post-run pain and how you can speed up recovery. We dream about the day that we spend less time hobbling around with sore joints and tired muscles and spend more time enjoying the cardiovascular health that running provides. Plus, your running performance will improve when you give recovery adequate planning and discipline!
So how can you shake off the aches and pains of running? And what can you do to emerge from the shower after those long runs feeling fresh?!
First we need to understand what causes the soreness in the first place…
- Why Am I Sore After My Runs?
- Why is Post-Running Recovery Important?
- How To Mitigate Pain and Recover Faster
- What Happens to Your Muscles During Recovery?
Why Am I Sore After My Runs?
Especially for runners new to the sport, there is a steep uphill battle against the aches and pains of running longer distances. Even the shortest distances and most modest mileage can make your lungs feel like they’re on fire or your legs long for rest.
Your muscles feeling like they’re on fire is not unusual. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong. There are a couple of types of muscle soreness that you can expect to experience during your running career.
AMS: Acute Muscle Soreness
If you’re feeling soreness in your legs during or right after you finish your run, this is acute muscle soreness (AMS). AMS results from the physical and chemical strain your muscles feel when running. The synopsis of AMS is that your muscles fatigue when they’re loaded by physical exertion and fall back on your nervous system to tell your brain they’re tired.
In tandem with lactic acid and H+ ion buildup, this triggers an inflammatory response, causing tired, aching muscles.
Running expert Steven Magness advises that runners, new or seasoned, push through this discomfort. He assures runners that the burn will eventually simmer down. As your endurance builds, your muscles will adapt to the exercise, allowing you to push your mileage further before the burn sets in.
DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
The soreness that runners feel the following morning and days after a hard run is what athletes call delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
There isn’t a clear answer behind what causes DOMS in runners, but research suggests that residual soreness is not a result of lactic acid buildup.
Instead, repairing tiny muscle tears from strenuous exercise leaves runners sore and hobbling around for days after their big race day. Some researchers even suspect that there’s a subconscious self-regulation component involved that causes us to feel extra sore after a hard run to allow the body time to rest and repair itself before the next tough training session.
If you are experiencing persistent sore muscles or have a limb causing chronic pain, we have some news for you. Your chronic discomfort may indicate overuse or evidence that you need to incorporate cross-training into your routine.
Strengthening the accessory muscles that support your main muscle groups is incredibly important in maintaining healthy running form and preventing overuse injuries. Consider adding resistance or strength training to your training schedule, and we can guarantee that your running performance will improve and your discomfort levels will reduce.
Beyond feeling achy legs or burning muscles, you may experience other discomforts while running.
You know that incredibly sharp pain in your side that feels like a knife is being lodged between two ribs? That, my running friends, is a side stitch. And they are incredibly, incredibly painful. Two hypotheses postulate the origin of this cruel and unusual pain we face as runners. The first suggests that running causes strain on the ligaments that connect your diaphragm to the abdominal muscles.
This pressure causes a pulling, nagging, tight pain in your sides. The second hypothesis suggests that the decreased calcium your body experiences when running prevents your abdominal muscles from relaxing.
Either way, the diaphragmatic muscle spasms that cause uncomfortable side stitches are no fun.
Why is Post-Running Recovery Important?
Being disciplined and sticking to your training plan is one way to guarantee growth as a runner and advancement in your running journey. But part of achieving your running dreams is to rest when your body needs rest and to recover as your body needs to recover. Pushing your body’s boundaries constantly will only take you so far before you are riddled with injuries and covered in KT tape.
Recovery is the key to unlocking your version of an injury-free running legend.
A 2009 Sports Health study found that up to 70% of runners run through overuse injuries each year. Whether the injury was a sustained runner’s knee, shin splints, or tendinitis, the repetitive strain of running without recovery periods will run your body down.
As you’ve probably experienced, running is a high-impact sport. Long-distance running can be especially taxing on the body. Your legs propel your body weight forward with each stride and absorb the shock of your feet hitting the ground with each stride. This strain on your muscles and tendons creates inflammatory reactions in your joints, causing discomfort and achiness.
Now, this is a normal bodily response to strenuous activity. Your body is built to repair itself after muscle strain. But as a runner, you’ve got to give your body time to rest and recover for it to do so.
How To Mitigate Pain and Recover Faster
Whether you’re new to running or have recently adopted a more rigorous training schedule, we have discussed why you are susceptible to that post-run pain. Luckily for you, AMS and DOMS will resolve themselves after a few days. There are ways that you, as a runner, can help speed up the recovery process.
Stretch After You Run
We all were taught in middle school gym class to stretch before working out or exercising. Oh, how our coaches did us wrong. Stretching cold muscles can actually cause additional tearing and discomfort to your body.
This practice is less effective at lengthening your muscles than stretching after a warm-up or even after your run.
Especially after longer runs or sprint workouts that tax your body, spend ten to fifteen minutes stretching. During this time, focus on your hips, hamstrings, quads, and calves. This is also a good time to stretch any parts of your body that felt tight during your training session – upper body, back, or abdomen included.
Stretching post-run can increase your range of motion as a runner and even increase blood flow, reducing recovery time. Taking those few minutes to lengthen your muscles may feel small, but your body will thank you later.
This tip has a dual meaning.
On the one hand, after you’ve hit “stop run” on your fitness watch, don’t just go from 100 to 0. Cooling down through active recovery allows your body to gradually return to its resting state. This gives your heart rate and blood pressure time to creep back to normal, and it only takes 5 to 15 minutes.
As per the first recovery tip, you can even spend some of this time stretching. Above all, don’t sit for too long after you’ve stopped running. As good as it feels to plop down on the curb, it can actually lead to more leg stiffness and lengthen your recovery time.
The other side of the “cool down” coin suggests cooling your body with ice.
Professional athletes, especially runners, reduce body soreness by plunging into an ice bath. These aren’t always practical, and honestly, who has buckets upon buckets of ice on hand? Using ice packs on sore areas will do just fine as well. Be mindful that 10 to 15 minutes of icing is sufficient. You don’t want to overdo it.
See more: When to use ice vs heat to boost recovery.
It comes as no surprise to learn that running is taxing on your body and takes up a lot of energy. Why do you think your bed looks so appealing when you get home from a long run around the neighborhood?
Replenishing your nutrients, especially carbs and protein, is crucial in healing your body and helping it recover quickly. Glycogen molecules stored in the form of carbohydrates are broken down and used as the primary energy source during your run. Those carbohydrates need to be replaced somehow!
Your body is most receptive to glycogen and protein within the first 30 to 60 minutes after your workout. That is why having a refueling snack on hand is so important immediately after you finish your run. Eating replenishing meals and snacks can help your body minimize muscle soreness and stiffness.
Replenishing your depleted glycogen stores with a carb-heavy snack also boosts your blood sugar and insulin levels. This helps your body maximize glycogen resynthesis, essential for repairing fatigued muscles.
High-protein snacks should be paired with your carbohydrate replenishment. Proteins are composed of amino acid chains responsible for preventing muscle protein breakdown in the body.
Our favorite quick eats for post-run recovery include Clif bars, Kind bars, a protein shake, bananas with peanut butter, yogurt, and protein-packed oats. Chocolate milk is also a great choice and always sounds appealing, run-or-no-run. Try to find snacks with a 1:3 ratio of protein to carbs grams.
See more: What supplements are good for post-workout recovery?
No matter how much water you may drink throughout your workout, you will finish your run dehydrated to some degree. Due to sweating, your body loses a significant amount of fluid and sodium. These must be replenished to give your body the hydration necessary to recover.
It is also important to note that water is not enough. Electrolytes are a game-changer when it comes to rehydrating. You can choose from dozens of electrolyte-rich sports drinks on the market. Coconut water is also an incredibly rehydrating drink that is adequately balanced to support your recovery.
Rehydrating properly after a long run helps your body repair muscle damage, digest essential nutrients, and replace all the fluids and minerals lost through sweat during your workout.
Warm Up Before You Run
Just as cooling down after your run is important, this pre-run activity will help your post-run body experience recovery more quickly and with less discomfort. A 10-minute warm-up is a great way to prevent injuries and prepare your muscles to move across miles of pavement. A brisk walk, jumping rope, and dynamic stretching are simple options to get your blood pumping as a primer for your run.
You should also ease into your run. Starting hot could leave you vulnerable to injuries and will tire you out quickly. You don’t want to be out of gas halfway through your long training run, do you?
If you feel soreness or tightness while running, and it doesn’t seem to dissipate as your run continues, it may be wise to stop running and switch to light cross-training instead.
Overuse injuries tend to linger, and you don’t want an injury to hold you back.
Rest and Recovery Days
Have rest and recovery days built into your training plan. They are just as important as your training days and should never be skipped!
Using these days to practice yoga, gentle dynamic stretching, or going on a family walk in the neighborhood are excellent ways to gently move your body without putting too much stress on it.
Professional sprint athletes have implemented long walks in their workout recovery regimen for decades. Give it a try! If anything, a little extra time outside will be good for your mental health.
We all do it, but do we do it enough?
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults prioritize resting at least seven to nine hours per night. Especially for runners, sleep is an essential part of proper recovery. Most muscle repair and recovery occurs during – you guessed it – sleep.
Sleep deprivation can cause hormonal changes, specifically spikes in cortisol (the stress hormone). Dozens of studies have monitored the relationship between sleep and athletic performance. Specifically recorded and published by Medical Hypotheses in 2011, a study correlated sleep deprivation in athletes to slower reaction times and reduced accuracy and endurance.
Beyond muscle repair, your body needs adequate sleep to reach its maximum running potential.
For really knotted muscles, massage may be necessary to help you remedy tightness in your body. Massage therapy is a highly effective (but often highly expensive) tool to help your body work through muscle recovery or tightness. If you don’t have massage therapy available locally, you can do some massage activities at home.
Massage guns, foam rollers, and trigger point massage sticks are widely available tools to add to your running gear stash to help with recovery. Using these tools to smooth out the thin layer of fascia across your muscles can help increase joint range of motion and accelerate recovery. Give your quads, calves, and glutes special attention – they deserve extra love!
See more: our guide to the best full-body massage mats.
Don’t Push Through the Pain
Many runners can be thick-skulled and run on injuries without giving them the time and attention necessary for healing.
Running through soreness due to exercise is one thing, but ignoring the pain from an injury is another. If you have pain that lasts longer than a week, you may need to see your doctor for an evaluation. Some injuries require medical attention, like physical therapy or chiropractic work, to heal.
Listen to your body’s cues, and don’t ignore pain signals! They are there for a reason.
What Happens to Your Muscles During Recovery?
During recovery, our bodies transition from a state of stress (exercise) to a state of homeostasis.
Rest and recovery are as crucial to improving athletic performance as the training session. In fact, recovery is when your muscles repair from exercise and grow bigger.
During recovery, the microscopic tears that are created during strenuous activity are repaired by satellite cells. The muscle fibers are replicated and fused, creating new muscle protein strands. These strands allow athletes to grow bigger and stronger over time.
Who doesn’t want that? Exactly.