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Recovery Rules

Photo by Travis McCoy

It’s time to put sore muscles in your rear view! Follow our foolproof plan to recover more quickly.

Hard workouts should make you a better runner. But if you disregard proper recovery, intense efforts have the opposite effect. Instead of faster times at your next event, you end up with tired legs on their way to injury.

“After a challenging running effort, your muscles develop microtears,” explains Christine Hinton, a running coach based in Maryland. “This damage can be a good thing, because as they heal they become stronger—but initially, the muscles are weaker from the effort.” Hinton says it all comes down to what you do in the all-important post-workout window. Nurture the muscles and they’ll heal properly; ignore them and they’ll remain inflamed.

Not sure how to treat your body after crossing the finish line? Never fear! Just follow this cheat sheet to treat yourself right after every tough run. What to do after. . .

5 Minutes: Walk it Out

It’s hard not to be tempted to drop to the ground once your workout is finally over, but the best thing to do is to keep walking. If you stop and sit, your muscles will cramp, which will make you feel stiff later, explains Leigh-Ann Plack, physical therapist at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. Walk (or jog slowly) for 10 minutes to keep the blood flowing.

10 Minutes: Refuel + Rehydrate

Even if you’re not hungry, it’s crucial to get something in your stomach. John L. Ivy, professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas, recommends consuming both carbs and protein post-workout. “This is very important as it will reduce muscle soreness and bring about a faster training adaptation,” he says. Eat a small meal that has a 3:1 ratio of carbs-to-protein—think a peanut butter sandwich or a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Wash it down with plenty of water to prevent dehydration.

30 Minutes: Get Dry

Change out of your wet clothes and dress for warmth. If you’re at a race, grab a space blanket to avoid a rapid drop in body temperature. Plack explains, “If you get too cold too quickly hypothermic symptoms can develop like shivering, stumbling, confusion.”

45 Minutes: Stretch

Now is the time to start stretching— gently. Perform stretches that feel good (not painful). Make sure to target all big muscles groups (hips, hamstrings and quads), as well as any areas that have caused you discomfort in the past.

90 Minutes: Take an Icy Bath

Plack recommends stepping into a bath for 10 minutes to decrease muscle inflammation. While this is often called an “ice bath,” you don’t need to use actual ice cubes. Simply fill your tub with cold water (54 to 60 degrees). Avoid hot tubs or saunas as heat will increase the inflammation that’s making you feel achy.

2 Hours: Power With Protein

Now that your stomach has settled, enjoy a full meal. But forget that big bowl of pasta—your body needs protein in order to repair tissue damage. An ideal post-workout meal includes 10 to 20 grams of the muscle-building nutrient. Runners over 40 should shoot for the higher end of this range as age affects the body’s ability to stimulate protein synthesis without fuel.

1 Day: Rest

Avoid vigorous exercise the day after a hard effort. Especially if you raced or performed a very tough run, take the day to rest completely. The most strenuous thing you should do is stretch. “When you ask your muscles to work hard, they will potentially break down a bit and tell you ‘I’m sore and hurt,’” Plack says. “Make sure your muscles are relaxed and you are getting enough rest to allow your body to heal itself.”

2 Days: Get Hands-On

At this point, your muscles will start to feel less tender. Treat yourself with a massage to encourage drainage of waste products within the muscles that can cause spasms and soreness. Another option is to perform a DIY rub-down using a foam roller or massage stick.

3-4 Days: Recover Actively

How long you choose to take off before starting to run again depends on the intensity of the workout or race as well as your goals and fitness level. In the meantime, light cross training will improve blood flow and reduce soreness. Ease your body back into exercise with low-impact workouts like yoga, easy cycling, walking or swimming. When you are finally ready to run, go slow, keep the distance short and opt for soft surfaces like a trail or track.