After my second marathon, I could not walk off a small curb for four days without my legs buckling due to damaged muscles (quadriceps). Waiting patiently behind baby strollers for the next available sidewalk ramp was very humbling. This experience made me ask myself, why does running require so much recovery?
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, physical improvements to your muscles and cardiovascular system do not occur while running. Improvements occur between runs, following the stimulus of running. In other words, if you don’t give yourself enough time to repair after a run, you will actually get slower and eventually injure yourself.
When we run longer, steeper, and/or faster than usual, micro-tears (small rips) occur in our muscles (as well as other metabolic byproduct damage), resulting in temporary soreness and dysfunction. In small doses, these micro-tears are good because they force our bodies to repair with more tolerance of speed and endurance for the next run.
The key ingredient for recovery is TIME. There are no magical drugs, treatments, classes, potions or lotions. Time for full recovery can take anywhere from several hours in the example of an elite athlete doing a short easy run to several weeks/months in the example of a new runner recovering from a marathon. Although time is the main ingredient, other factors include sleep/rest, proper nutrition and hydration, and stress levels.
Dr. Aaron Case is a 2:45 marathoner and Chiropractor whose focus is on Active Release Techniques and running/sports injuries.