Dutch Runner Sifan Hassan wowed the world at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics this summer when she attempted an unprecedented distance triple, competing in the 1500-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter races. Between heats and finals, Hassan would cover 24,500 meters in barely an eight-day span, with as little as 12 hours between races.
It was June when she proposed the idea to her coach, Tim Rowberry. He was speechless at first, but soon they began making a plan to help Hassan compete at her highest level in such a short span of time. The feat didn’t have a true road map, though Rowberry knew it would require a careful balance between speed and endurance, along with several swift recoveries. And it worked: Hassan pulled it off—winning two gold medals and a bronze.
Your competition schedule likely isn’t as daunting. But you might face two or more hard efforts on a tight time line. Perhaps you’re running races on subsequent weekends, completing an overnight relay, or simply want to feel fresh for a long run a few days after a speed workout.
Every runner should have a recovery plan, says Alisa Harvey, a former elite middle-distance runner who now competes as a masters athlete and coaches in Manassas, Virginia. Your body is a remarkable machine, naturally repairing microtears in your muscles, replenishing your energy stores, and clearing out the waste products you produce during hard efforts. But these actions occur during recovery, not during the effort itself. It’s that downtime that allows you to grow stronger and faster, which is why it’s so important. Actively promoting these processes also reduces your injury risk, builds your confidence, and prepares you to train and race hard again, says Robyn LaLonde, running coach and owner of EDGE Athlete Lounge in Chicago.
Each runner has unique needs. But dialing in a few key elements—and practicing them through your training—can help you nail recovery when it really counts.
Practice tight time lines
As a general rule, good recovery means at least a day of rest or easy running between hard and long efforts, LaLonde says.
But if you’re preparing for two races in a tight time frame, such as a 5K and a half marathon in the same weekend, sprinkle simulations into your training schedule. Before the Olympics, Hassan and Rowberry practiced elements of the triple in training—for instance, a 1500-meter race followed by a tempo run the next day or even that same night, to replicate a 5,000-meter effort.
Mike Wardian is also a turnaround master. He won the 2017 and 2019 World Marathon Challenge—seven marathons on seven continents in seven days (all under three hours). He also ran the Chicago Marathon on October 10 and the Boston Marathon the next day.
At least three to four weeks before big challenges, Wardian does three 10-mile runs in one day, each one slightly faster. (You might keep those runs shorter, or do them on subsequent days.)
These back-to-back efforts train you to hold a challenging pace on tired legs and force you to be proactive about recovery methods between efforts, Wardian says. For instance, experiment with self-massage tools (foam rollers or massage guns) to ease tension in your legs and other sore spots. This increases bloodflow, which means your muscles get more oxygen and nutrients, and it can help reduce inflammation. You can also help your body by booking a massage within a day of the next hard effort, LaLonde recommends.
Give Your Muscles a Squeeze
Dynamic compression boots, such as those made by Normatec, use inflatable air pockets to enhance bloodflow. They’re pricey, but often rentable at gyms and recovery studios. (Sifan Hassan borrowed a pair from Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers during the Olympics.) Compression clothing—socks, tights, calf sleeves—also can help, and costs less.
Food and hydration replenish fluid and energy and provide raw materials for muscle repair. To jump-start the process, grab a snack with a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein (like chocolate milk or a PB&J) as soon as you can after a hard effort, says Susannah Scaroni, a graduate student in nutrition at the University of Illinois and a wheelchair racer who won gold in the 5,000 meters and bronze in the 800 meters at this summer’s Paralympics.
Scaroni also raced the 1500 meters and the marathon, all within eight days. Immediately after each, she ate a Clif bar or drank a Core Power Protein Shake. She also alternated water with electrolyte beverages to replace the sodium and potassium she would sweat out. If you have time for a full meal between efforts, make it rich in easily digestible carbs, such as oatmeal or cereal with berries. Not hungry? Hassan wasn’t either, so she focused on milk, fruit, hydration, and protein shakes. “Sifan ate fruit at every meal,” Rowberry says. Anti-inflammatory foods like berries, chia seeds, walnuts, and salmon also enhance recovery, Scaroni says.
One item to skip: alcohol. Research suggests it can hamper muscle repair. Booze also interferes with sleep and may reduce your heart rate variability, a measure of the gap between heartbeats signaling the recovery of your cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Move some, but not too much
Immediately after a long, hard effort, Wardian likes to keep moving—walking or performing leg swings—to increase bloodflow to the legs.
But don’t overdo it. Take a cue from Olympic heptathletes and decathletes, who conserve energy by moving slowly between events, LaLonde says. If you’re traveling between races, make the journey as stress-free as possible. Harvey spent years using road races as a way to fund her track career; she once made the podium in two races in two days in two states, in part because she skipped the cooldown after the first one and took the train instead of driving to the second, so she could rest.
Snooze, if you can
Sleep is your No. 1 recovery tool, LaLonde says. Getting a good night’s rest—which, for most people, is about seven to eight hours—optimizes tissue repair, modulates inflammation, and reduces fatigue.
Regular exercise generally promotes restful slumber, but races and their aftermath can interfere. Hassan was up until about 4 a.m. the night after winning gold in the 5,000 meters. Later in the week, the combination of adrenaline, fatigue, and stress made sleep challenging, Rowberry says. Mitigate the effects of racing by creating an evening wind-down routine. Scaroni took her Kindle to Tokyo; 30 minutes before bed, she put down her phone and delved into Harry Potter. You can also front-load your rest, adding extra hours in the days before your race or workout, Harvey suggests. Naps fill in other gaps—in a 2019 study, 30-minute snoozes offset the negative effects of sleep deprivation on performance.
Refresh your mind-set
After the first effort, take a moment to reflect on your performance, then put it aside. Be realistic about how fatigue figures into your pacing and performance, but remember that past results don’t dictate your future. In fact, if you start out stiff and sore, you might actually feel better over time. “If you keep chugging along, eventually your nutrition hits, you get in the right zone, or you just find a way to get your mojo back,” Wardian says. “A lot of times, you’ll surprise yourself.”