by Tim Gorichanaz
There’s no shortage of products that promise to accelerate recovery. Sure, they might work, but first you have to buy them, which means (a) spending money and (b) either going all the way to the store or waiting days for your order to arrive. But did you know there are plenty of strategies to speed up and improve recovery that are absolutely free and don’t require any equipment? That’s right, you can ease up that stiffness and heal that Achilles without a motorized foam roller. My three favorite tips are: elevation, sunlight and fasting.
Here’s one that almost everyone knows, but surprisingly few implement. You probably learned the acronym RICE in elementary school: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. The last one is especially important for runners, since spending long periods of time on our feet encourages blood to stagnate down there. Blood circulation is vital to recovery because it carries away the waste from our exhausted or injured muscles – elevating your feet after a long or hard run is a quick way to encourage your blood to flow.
After your next long run or race, spend 10 to 20 minutes with your feet up in the air. Try lying down with your legs up against a wall, as vertical as possible. It’s a comfortable way to get in some quality elevation.
You’ve probably heard about how we need to be getting more vitamin D, and that goes doubly for athletes. Having sufficient vitamin D has been shown to increase the rate of muscular recovery after intense exercise.
One way we get vitamin D is through sun exposure. Fortunately for ultrarunners, we spend a lot of time outside, so we’re already ahead of the general population. But if you’re injured and not running, you may have to remind yourself to get some sun.
But do it smartly: First, it’s important to understand that the sun releases two kinds of ultraviolet light: A and B. The UVA rays are the ones that have been linked to melanoma, and they inhibit vitamin D production. UVB rays, on the other hand, stimulate vitamin D production in the body. That’s right: UV gets a bad rap, but in moderation it’s actually vital to your health. Next, remember that there’s more UVB in the morning sun and more UVA in the evening sun – at midday there’s an even mix. If you’re relying on a big window to get your sunlight, be careful: windows allow the harmful UVA rays to pass through, but block the good UVB rays.
So what should you do? To get the vitamin D and psychological benefits of sunlight, spend about 10 minutes outside in the midday sun. Don’t use any sunscreen or sunglasses; they block the UVB rays you’re trying to absorb, and you don’t have to worry about sunburn if you’re only going to be outside for a short time.
But can’t you just take a supplement? That’s surely an option (granted, it’s not free like sunshine!), but be careful: supplementing with isolated vitamins can lead to dangerous imbalances. If you go this route, be sure to find a supplement that has both vitamins D and K2.
This may seem counterintuitive. We’re constantly told that we need to keep eating to “keep our energy up,” and most sports advice tells us to eat, eat, eat in order to recover properly. Feeding certainly has its place – after all, if you go too long without food, you’ll die – but in our midnightsnack society, we’ve forgotten that fasting can be hugely beneficial and strategically employed.
The body has two main internal modes: building up and breaking down. When you’re eating, and for up to five hours after you take your last bite, your body is focused on digestion – breaking down your food and transporting it throughout the body. It’s only after you’ve stopped eating that your body has a chance to rebuild – to take all those materials you’ve eaten and put them to use. But if you never stop eating (e.g., if you snack often), your body never has a chance to do this.
Fasting triggers a process called autophagy, which means “self-eating.” It sounds gruesome, but it’s vital to survival. Over time, cells accumulate damage. Think of it like a house: even if you’re not under siege, you’ll have to fix the plumbing and redo the siding every once in awhile. Through autophagy, the busted parts of your cells are disassembled and either thrown away or recycled, leaving room for fresh new parts (that you ingested earlier) to be installed. And not only is autophagy important for injury repair, it’s also vital for optimal brain function, muscle growth and fat loss.
And it’s amazingly effective. In fact, one study recently showed that in a 72-hour fast, the body’s entire immune system is regenerated.
So how do you do it? There are a million ways to do it, but here’s a sample protocol that’s been effective for me: After a big race, wait until you’re hungry and then eat until you’re full (perhaps unfortunately, food quality does matter… so try to limit the Ho-Hos). Then, by 6 or 8 p.m., stop eating, and don’t eat again until noon the next day.
Tim Gorichanaz is an ultrarunner and wellness advocate. A copyeditor for BeMore Magazine, he also created Get Back Up, an anti-inflammatory, whole-herb supplement designed to improve recovery in endurance athletes.