“Resting” isn’t about inactivity; it’s about optimizing your down time to be better when it counts.
The rest day used to be a day I dreaded. You know the saying, if running is difficult, run more? If I skipped a day of running during marathon training, I felt like I was setting myself back. The best (at least, the most transparent) runners seemed to log double my weekly mileage, and I was beating my body up just to keep up.
But in the three years between my first marathon and my sixth, I eventually scaled my running back (with input from trainers and experts) from six days a week to three or four days. And with the extra time off my feet, I fully jumped on the now crowded recovery bandwagon: I sheathed myself in Normatec Recovery compression sleeves, broke a sweat in infrared saunas, wrapped my joints in pads emitting electromagnetic waves, sprawled across vibrating massage balls and rollers, and let a trainer drill a percussion gun straight into my hips.
More From Runner's World
These modalities were everywhere—at the gym, at the PT’s office, in boutique studios, and at new spaces dedicated entirely to recovery techniques and tools. After years of high-intensity training being one of the biggest buzzwords in fitness, the idea of prioritizing recovery has made a comeback.
“There’s no question that we need the training to adapt and to improve,” says Shona Halson, Ph.D., a recovery expert and senior physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport. “But over the years, we’ve pushed training, and training volume and intensity, to the max. So how do you additionally drive that adaptation? Well, one potential way is to recover better.”
Of course, as recovery becomes trendier, the ways to do it have progressed far beyond kicking your feet up on your couch for a day. Brands are hawking everything from vibrating foam rollers to portable electrical muscle stimulation devices and pneumatic compression sleeves. The only issue is that the science around these high-tech products is blurry at best; most of the sensationalist headlines are derived from studies with very small sample sizes that are far from definitive.
But those who use some of these recovery tools (including our own Test Team) from elite to recreational runners swear they make a difference. And seeing high-level athletes integrate recovery into their training regimens plays into a powerful motivator: the placebo effect.
“We are highly influenced by our peers through what we call social learning, which can boost the brain’s placebo responses,” explains Luana Colloca, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Maryland Schools of Nursing and Medicine who studies placebos.
The reality is, most of us don’t want to slow down; we want action. And the evolution of recovery has enabled us to feel like we’re taking action without adding extra stress to our bodies. “The idea that you are actively engaged in something gives you a sense of control, which can boost performance expectations,” says Colloca.
So don’t laugh at your friend or run club teammate who does infrared sauna twice a week, sticks electrodes on their muscles, and carries a Theragun with them everywhere. “If you’re doing 20 types of recovery, five of them probably work, five of them might work a little bit, and 10 probably don’t work,” says Malachy McHugh, an exercise physiologist at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma Lenox Hill Hospital. “As long as none of them do any harm, it’s perfect.” In most cases, he adds, the effects are negligible for casual athletes.
[Smash your goals with a Runner’s World Training Plan, designed for any speed and any distance.]
That said, Halson warns that “there is a tendency for people to go with the flashy things that go bang and look pretty, and then neglect the things that we know really work and may take a little more effort.” Think: the classic old standby of self-myofascial release (SMR) or foam rolling, which can be done using a range of items from a fancy foam roller to a PVC pipe or a tennis ball.
Instead of blindly investing your time and money in the latest tech, Halson recommends looking at recovery as a pyramid: The foundation is sleep and nutrition—spend most of your efforts here—followed by scientifically-backed modalities like water immersion (ice baths) and compression; then the trendy, new tools would be at the top. “You can give those things a try or use them as a little top-up, just don't make the gadgets the only thing that you’re doing,” she adds.
From the foundation to the top of the pyramid, recovery products are designed to make you feel better. And while the physiological component may still be up in the air, the psychological placebo effect is very real. “Recovery is essentially a timeout,” says McHugh. “By making these recovery modalities an important part of your training, you’re forcing your body to relax in a way that makes you feel good and promotes rest.”
There’s that old adage that claims “running is 90 percent mental.” And this newfound focus on recovery is a perfect example of how your brain can affect your performance. Forget quantifying recovery; for the recreational runner, it really might not matter if there’s less lactic acid in your blood after a session in the compression sleeves or less inflammation in your system after a bout in the infrared sauna. If it makes you feel better, you feel better.
“We absolutely cannot underestimate the feel-good aspect, which is about our mental recovery just as much as it is about physical recovery,” says Halson. “Choosing things that you like and enjoy makes you more likely to engage and get the most out of your recovery.”
Let’s be clear, no amount of fancy recovery is going to turn you into Kipchoge; these modalities can’t replace smart training. But practicing them may put you in a more confident headspace, and that’s going to show up on your runs.
To be totally honest, I have no measurable way of showing that any of the recovery tools I’ve tried actually worked. But after incorporating them into my training, I ran my fastest marathon ever—by a full 11 minutes. Was it because, in addition to my typical training, they affected me on a physiological level? Maybe. More likely, though, it was because I believed I was doing something good for my body, and that confidence carried over to race day. Either way is fine by me.