Many runners look forward to days off as an opportunity to set new PRs in channel surfing. But if you want to perform your best, there are better ways to spend your non-running time. "You don't want to run on your recovery day — it's an opportunity to recuperate from the stresses of training," says Stephen McGregor, Ph. D., an exercise physiologist and advisor to the cross-country team at Eastern Michigan University. "But doing nothing isn't ideal either, unless you are injured. Light exercise increases blood flow to the muscles, which clears out waste products that contribute to soreness and inflammation."
Research shows that an active recovery can soothe aches and set you up for stronger workouts. The International Journal of Sports Medicine
reports that cyclists who exercise at a low intensity and get a rubdown on their off days recover faster and perform better on their next training day than those who are inactive.
When you're injured you can't run as well or as often as you want to. Follow our 10 laws of injury prevention
to stay healthy, happy and out on the road.
Lots of runners take the day off after their longest run of the week. But Dennis Barker, head coach of Team USA Minnesota, says when you're gearing up for a challenging workout, like a 20-miler, it can be beneficial to not run the day before. "If you've had a training week that has included an increase in mileage or hard workouts like intervals, you could take an easy cross-training day before your long run," Barker says. "You'll give your muscles a break from running, so you'll feel fresher. But you're not sitting around, which could make you feel stiff the next day." Move It
Ride a bike, swim laps, walk the dog for about 30 minutes. Keep the intensity low — your maximum heart rate shouldn't exceed 50 to 60 percent and you shouldn't be out of breath. "On a scale of 1 to 10, your effort level should be at about a 4," says Chris Chorak, a San Francisco-based physical therapist. But if you're preparing for a long run tomorrow, McGregor says you can take up the intensity a notch (to a 6), which will energize you and keep you from going into your run feeling flat and stale. A note of caution: If you're limping, experiencing sharp pain, or suspect you're on the brink of injury, put your feet up, and take a true rest day.
Your feet are the foundation for every step you take. Make sure you care for them properly
It's tough to squeeze in quality stretching sessions when you're racing from the track to the office or to day care. So here's a chance to pay your penance. After your muscles are warm from your bike ride or walk, stretch your tight spots — for most runners, that's the hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. "A tight muscle can't perform at an optimal level," Chorak says. "If you're imbalanced — one side of your body is less flexible than the other — it can throw off your stride and lead to injury." Time-crunched runners might appreciate the benefits of yoga, which gets you moving while giving your muscles a good stretch. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine
finds that runners who do yoga exercises experience a boost in running performance (see our recommended 10-minute yoga
routine). Eat Smart
A day off running isn't an excuse to devour a bag of Doritos. Instead, stock up on nutrients you may not be getting enough of during a typical training week, says Leslie Bonci, R. D., C. S. S. D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Many runners are afraid to eat high-fiber foods on running days because they think they'll get an upset stomach, but fiber is important for digestive health," she says. "And protein often gets pushed aside in favor of carbs on training days." Bonci's rest-day menu includes: whole-grain cereal with skim milk and fruit, a spinach salad with grilled salmon or chicken and beans, and a lean flank steak, veggies, and brown rice. If you'll be running the next morning, have a snack (like graham crackers and a glass of low-fat milk) before bed to stock your carb stores. Also, don't forget your hydration needs
— drink so your urine is a pale yellow, Bonci says.
Follow the six rules of the Runner's World Healthy Runner's Diet
, designed just for runners like you.Rub It In
Research shows that a massage can reduce muscle soreness by about 30 percent. Time on the table can also alert you to potential injuries. "A therapist often feels tightness in muscles you may not notice, which clues you in to trouble spots," says Leah Jurek, an ultrarunner and massage therapist in Seattle. But schedule your massages for the day after a hard workout, not before. "You need about 24 hours to recover from massage therapy," Jurek says. If times are leaving more than your muscles tight, try self-massage with a foam roller.Turn In Early
"Your brain and your body both need sleep to recover from the physical and mental stresses of training," says Chuck Samuels, M. D., medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary. Aim for a solid seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night to give your body adequate time to rebuild and repair itself, he says. Immediate Recovery
On days when you've been running for more than 90 minutes, the recovery process can't wait till tomorrow. Follow this timeline to speed the healing process. 0-5 Minutes
Walk until your breathing is steady. Change into fresh clothes to regulate body temperature. 5-15 Minutes
While muscles are warm, hit tight spots. 15-30 Minutes
A 15-minute ice bath is an ideal way to reduce inflammation. Or put an ice pack on achy muscles and joints. 30-45 Minutes
Consume both carbs and protein to maximize recovery. A glass of low-fat chocolate milk will do the trick. Rest of the Day
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Elevating your feet prevents blood from pooling in your legs. Getting blood flowing back up to the heart flushes out waste products. And make sure you get a proper night's rest: seven to eight hours, uninterrupted