Let’s talk recovery! This is an important part of any training plan, but even more so for ultra training. Proper recovery, like rest days in the training plan, reduce your risk of getting injured. Here are some of the tools and tricks I use to take care of my tired legs while I am training:
Foam Roller and Stick Rollers
These hurt like heck, but it is so worth it! Rollers work to massage out the tightness from your muscles. They increase blood flow to help flush out lactate, or lactic acid, that was created during your workout (see more on this topic below). There are two basic types of rollers: Foam Rollers and Stick Rollers.
Foam Rollers are the ones you basically lay on to roll out your muscles. Your body weight helps to apply enough pressure to get deep into the muscle and work out the soreness. They work really well on your legs, glutes (butt) and lower back. I really like the one I have from TriggerPoint (link to product websites at the end of this post). Now they even make a foam roller that vibrates to work even deeper into your muscles. I do struggle to roll out my shoulders using the foam roller, but overall I prefer them because I use my body weight as opposed to my arm strength (and grit).
Stick Rollers are the ones you hold in your hands to roll over various areas of concern. These are great for all parts of the body. I like these for my back – I just have to enlist my husband’s help for this. I lay on my stomach and he uses the roller over my shoulders and mid-back. Addaday, The Stick, and TriggerPoint all make great options. I suggest going to your favorite local running store or sporting goods store and testing them out. They all do the same thing, but it is up to personal preference. Don’t want to spend money? Use a rolling pin! …as in the one your Mama and Grandma used to roll out flour for pie crusts. I use mine (handed down to me from my Granny) more for rolling out my muscles than for baking these days.
How to use: You can find really in-depth videos on how to use rollers on YouTube, but basically you want to SLOWLY roll over sore areas, pausing over tender areas for 20-30 seconds. If the pain is not alleviated after a few minutes of slow rolling, give the area some rest and try rolling again in a few hours or the next day. Some soreness will take longer to go away. Obviously, if you are in extreme pain, or if you feel that you have a pulled muscle or stress fracture – go see a doctor! All of these recovery tools and techniques are for regular soreness that comes from an increase in physical activity.
Compression Tights, Sleeves and Socks
First off, this is a topic that often debated among athletes. Some swear by them, others don’t think they work. I have used various compression gear and I like them in specific situations. Secondly, I am not talking about those compression stockings that diabetic and elderly people wear – I am referring to athletic grade compression (there is a difference).
The purpose of compression gear is to promote blood flow through your legs, either during or after exercise to mitigate the buildup of lactate or lactic acid. Compression delivers oxygen-rich blood to the muscles being engaged in your activity. For a very basic explanation, lactic acid production occurs when exercise intensity increases to the point where energy demands are higher than available oxygen. In this acidic environment, glucose that is normally broken down for energy does not get used efficiently because the metabolic pathways become disrupted. This then leads to fatigue. Compression is beneficial during and after exercise to restore oxygen-rich blood flow to tired, sore legs and promotes recovery. A secondary purpose of compression is to keep your muscles aligned and to prevent muscle oscillation that can lead to quicker fatigue and possible injury. (NOT claiming that compression will prevent all injuries!)
Tights – I love my tights from 2XU. I have worn them during long runs and they were very comfortable. I especially like wearing them AFTER long runs because the compression actually feels really good on tired legs. I’ll wear the tights when my glutes and hamstrings are particularly sore. Chris has worn the half tights for marathons and felt like they helped to reduce muscle fatigue in his quads and hamstrings.
Calf Sleeves – I like calf sleeves for trail running! 1. I am HIGHLY allergic to poison oak and poison ivy! I want my lower legs covered while running trails so that I do not accidentally come in contact with the oil (Chris helps me take them off when I get home and they go straight into the washing machine). 2. I can still wear my preferred running socks. No blisters for me! 3. I actually do feel like they keep my muscles fresh for longer, which is more important to me on the trails. I can marathon-shuffle home on the road without tripping and falling (usually). I have a harder time doing that on the trail, where those pesky rocks and roots try to send me flying as I wear out. My favorites are CEP and Zensah.
Socks – I prefer socks more for recovery, because I really love my running socks! They are thin and moisture-wicking, which means my shoes fit the way they should and I don’t get blisters. Compression socks are a little thick and therefore are not my favorite to run in. But, for recovery they are nice and actually better than calf sleeves. With compression socks, the compression goes all the way down to your feet and you can prop your legs up post-run for a few hours without issues. Compression in the sleeves stop at your ankle, which means that blood has the potential to pool in your feet if you are sedentary for too long. I have never had an issue with this, but I have been warned, so I am sharing that tidbit here! My favorite compression socks are also CEP and Zensah.
My knees sometimes give me problems, especially if I get too lax on my strength exercises. When one of my knees gets too sore, I bust out the Aircast! Chris got this after he had surgery on his shoulder (he busted one playing Division I football and the other playing Rugby), but they make cuffs for different areas of the body – look for them on Amazon. To use, you fill the thermos-like container with ice and cold water, fasten the cuff over your knee (or other area of concern), attach the cuff to the thermos part, and turn on. The machine routinely circulates the ice-cold water to the cuff. 20 minutes later my knee is good as new (although very cold)!
Supplements – Protein Shakes, Aminowise and Electrolytes
This could really be its own blog post, so I’ll try to be brief here.
Protein Shakes — I have used whey protein powder in the past, especially when strength training in the gym. Your body uses carbohydrates, fats and protein for energy. Protein helps maintain (and in some cases, increase) your muscle size, can reduce muscle damage, and provides your body with much-needed amino acids. I use protein products more for post-exercise because it helps repair damage done to my muscles during running or strength training. Protein shakes and bars are not necessary during exercise unless your workout lasts more than 2 hours. Honestly, I am not a big fan of protein bars because they are always too heavy in my stomach and have too much sugar. I prefer to mix whey protein with milk and sometimes I’ll throw that in the blender with some frozen fruit for the added antioxidants and nutrients.
Aminowise — Lately I have been using Aminowise from Young Living. Honestly, I didn’t like the taste at first, but it has grown on me. Aminowise contains branched chain amino acids, which aid in preventing muscle catabolism that occurs during exercise. It also contains antioxidants and minerals formulated to help reduce lactic acid (see the product info on YL’s site HERE.) I add this to water and drink after every mid – to – long distance run. You can also drink it during exercise, if you are strength training.
Electrolytes are important for cell function and cell signaling in your body. Electrolytes form ions in body fluids, and too few will create a host of problems, one of them being muscle cramps. Obviously, this is horrible for any athlete, so it is important to replenish electrolytes lost during exercise. There are a ton of different sports drinks on the market, but most of them have way too much sugar. This is problematic, especially if you are working out to lose weight. My favorite electrolyte replacement is Nuun. I like the tabs – 1 tab in 16 oz of water gives me the perfect amount of flavor (watermelon, tropical fruit, and strawberry lemonade are my favorites). The tablets contain sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, with only 1 gram of sugar or less! They are also soy, dairy, and gluten free. When it is really hot out, especially if I am running in the South, I will drink Nuun while running if my runs are going to last 1 hour or more. In colder weather, I’ll take it with me on runs that I expect to last 2 hours or longer – and I’ll take a sip here and there starting at about 30 minutes in so that my electrolyte levels don’t get too low. Want a more natural option? Coconut water – the pure stuff, so check the label – is a great source of electrolytes!
I love using essential oils as part of my recovery. Check out my post in the Get Oily tab for more on this topic. My favorites are PanAway, a blend by Young Living, and Copaiba. I’ll apply them directly to the area of concern, or add several drops to a warm bath with Epsom Salt. To explain the toner in the pic above — I make my own with witch hazel, lavender, tea tree, and frankincense. If I fall during a run and get cut, I’ll spray my toner on the cut to clean it (and then scrub the dirt out when I get home). Witch hazel and the oils are great for the skin and for cleaning cuts.
Hydration, Hydration, HYDRATION!
Lastly, the single most important thing you can do to prevent injury is to properly hydrate! A basic rule of thumb is to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water. For example, if you are 160 lbs., you should aim to drink 80 oz. of water every single day. This is the suggested amount for a regular, healthy individual (pregnant women and those with certain medical conditions may need more). If you are working out, especially in warm weather, you will need more than this for your body to operate the way it should. When you are dehydrated, your tendons and muscles start to lose their flexibility. Instead of expanding and contracting as you move, they start to behave more like beef jerky – withered and stiff! This leads to strained and pulled muscles, which can side-line you and kill your training. Drinking water is the easiest and cheapest way to stay healthy and injury-free! You can even download apps on your phone to log your water intake throughout the day to make sure you are on track. If you are just starting to increase your water intake to maintain healthy hydration levels, be patient! Your bladder WILL eventually adjust and you won’t have to frequent the bathroom as often. Speaking of, the color of your urine will tell you how hydrated you are. If you are properly hydrated, your pee will be very, very light. A stronger yellow color is an indication that you need to up your water intake. Brown pee? You are dehydrated! Go drink. NOW!
Here are the links the brands I mentioned above. (Click the brand to navigate to their site).