Your 3 Running Recovery Commandments
It doesn’t matter how seasoned of a runner you are, you need a healthy running recovery routine at any level.
For many runners, hip, knee, and ankle pain can make an activity they once loved turn into a painful endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
You can make recovery a part of your healthy routine, which could lead to running longer and/or faster with little to no discomfort.
While things like diet and sleep certainly play a huge role in running recovery, the main focus needs to be on relieving muscle tension, soothing muscle knots, and encouraging muscle recovery. Building a personalized program is a great way to reverse some of these painful byproducts of running - and even prevent them in the first place.
Why you need a running recovery routine
Running is an excellent way to stay healthy in body and mind, but it can also be hard on your body!
If you're looking into how to run longer or more frequently, knowing how to run with proper form, doing plenty of cross-training, and implementing a running recovery routine are all measures needed to prevent running injuries.
Many running injuries are due to overuse. These overuse injuries can also come from muscular imbalances and tightness, which can be avoided with the right post-running routine and by implementing intentional rest days between hard runs.
Now, if you’re someone that has hip pain after running, then these types of recovery practices become even more essential. Hip pain or knee pain from running usually means one thing: your hip flexors are tight.
Your hips are a vital part of your running stride. They provide your hip flexion and allow proper hip extension when running as well. Unfortunately, they’re also prone to fatigue from running, which causes muscle tightness and knots.
Runners that also have an office job and live a relatively sedentary lifestyle outside of their daily run are even more likely to have tight iliopsoas muscles.
How can you hurt your muscles by sitting, though? Aren’t you resting them?
Well, not exactly. In fact, excessive sitting is one of the easiest ways to get tight hip flexors. You see, when you are in the seated position, your iliacus is continually in a shortened position. If you leave it here for too long, it can start to “freeze” and develop knots.
By the time you get to this “frozen” muscle stage, you start to lose flexibility that allows for proper flexion and extension while you are running.
As tightness builds, both your iliacus and psoas muscles begin to pull on all their nearby muscles and joints which creates a domino effect from your hip out.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, “why do my ankles hurt when I run?” it might not have to do with your ankles at all. Having tight iliopsoas can effectively cause lower back pain, knee pain, and even ankle pain.
The domino effect from tight hip flexors is so dramatic because of its location and ability to pull your pelvis out of alignment. Anatomically, if your pelvis is out of alignment, then it becomes difficult for you to properly perform certain movements like running.
The best way to address issues like tight muscles is to employ preventive measures in your running recovery routine.
Your 3 running recovery commandments
There are three practices I recommend for every runner in their running recovery routine. How often you do these running recovery commandments will depend on your running regiment and knowing your body and personal needs.
There are several other things you can do before and during running that will help as well. For example, there are running shoes for over-pronation and many warm up routines to try before your run.
Working with a medical professional like a physical therapist is a great way to build an effective running recovery program that helps you reach your individual health goals. For everyone, however, these are the three running recovery commandments I recommend.
1. Implement a proper cool down
Doing a proper warm up is important, but it may be even more important to do an effective cool down. When you think of a cool down for running, most people think of walking for a few minutes and stretching.
Both of these can be effective cool down tools, but should be done so with caution and with the right timing.
While the cooldown is arguably the best time to stretch your muscles because they are warm and pliable, if you have muscle knots, are hyper mobile, or have tight hip flexors, be careful how much and how deeply you stretch.
First, don’t stretch muscle knots.
Stretching is great for muscle to brain communication, blood flow, and helping the muscles repair after exercise, but it does have its limitations.
One major limitation occurs if you have a muscle that is holding muscle tension, meaning it is contracted and in a shortened position (much like when sitting). When you stretch with muscle tension, the muscle may elongate some, but the muscle tension will still exist.
You’ll likely notice this muscle tension in the form of muscle knots. So, if you notice you have muscle knots in certain areas after running, you can stretch them but do so very carefully.
If you go on a really long run (more than 90 minutes), acute muscle damage is actually possible if you jump right into stretching from the run. So, before you stretch it out, walk for a while to let the muscles begin to relax and engage in a new way.
Part of your cool down period (20 minutes post run) should also focus on things like refueling through nutrition and hydrating.
During the cool down activities, like stretching and walking, start hydrating right away. Having proper hydration can help your muscles stretch more effectively and prevent injury caused by overstretching.
2. Use foam rolling and massage
When your muscles are holding tension, stretching, massage, and foam rolling will all feel good.
Massage and foam rolling help you stimulate more blood flow throughout your muscles and can encourage faster muscle recovery.
However, these activities may not get rid of the muscle tension, nor allow you to reach all of the muscles you want to massage.
This is especially true when it comes to IT band tightness. If anyone has ever told you to foam roll your IT band, I’m sorry to break the news to you - your IT band isn't a muscle and foam rolling is a waste of time (not to mention really painful).
Using a foam roller or other massage tools can be effective with the right applications. Foam rollers are also great additions to certain stretches and have the potential to help stave off delayed onset muscle soreness.
3. Practice muscle pressure release
When you have muscle tension in your body, it can cause issues like hip pain from running, lateral hip pain, or even ankle pain from running.
You can hold muscle tension anywhere in your body, and muscle pressure release is the most effective way to release that tension. Since we are focusing on running, we are also going to focus on ankle, hip, and knee pain and tight hip flexors.
Not only are your hip flexors required for flexion and extension, they are also primary stabilizing muscles and are used to move your trunk from side to side. The constant engagement of these muscles make it easy to see how running can fatigue them and cause muscle knots.
The issue with getting muscle knots out of these two specific muscles is that they are very hard to reach and stretching has its limitations. Most runners will integrate hip flexor stretching into their cool down but, to prevent overstretching, muscle tension also needs to be removed.
You cannot reach the iliacus or the psoas with a standard foam roller, and most massage balls are too small or too hard to reach the psoas. So, how can you put prolonged pressure on those muscles on your own?
First, you can have someone help you, like a running partner or physical therapist. Unfortunately, those options aren’t always available when you need them, and if you’re an avid runner, you may need muscle release every day!
That’s why I invented the Hip Hook.
The Hip Hook is specially designed for tight iliacus muscle release and allows you to perform prolonged muscle release on your own. The manual gives you a map of how to locate your psoas and iliacus muscles.
Once you’ve found the right location, roll onto your stomach and use your body weight to apply pressure for 30-90 seconds. The first few times you use it, depending on how tight your muscles are, it may be a “hurts so good” sensation.
It’s likely you’ve had this muscle tension for a long time, so it will take patience and practice to train it to relax once again.
If you know your hip flexors are extremely tight, or you’re not accustomed to pressure in this area, you may choose to start with the Hip Release Ball. The size and firmness of the ball are perfect for warming up this area for more direct pressure with the Hip Hook. While the ball won’t be able to access your iliacus, it provides broad pressure to the psoas muscle: the size and density ensures that it doesn’t get lost in your abdomen and will be able to help release this muscle. It can also be used to release the back of your hip and the piriformis muscle.
With the proper tools, and a regular running recovery routine, you’ll be able to focus on your running goals instead of your aches and pains.
FAQs about running recovery
Is it bad to run every day?
Yes and no-- running every day can increase your risk of overuse injuries, but if you build up to running daily gradually, your risk can go down. If you follow proper running recovery steps (including releasing your hip flexors), cross train, and listen to your body when it needs a break, running daily is feasible with little to no issue.
What does a running recovery day look like?
When you are taking a total rest day from running, you should also avoid doing other activities that stress the same parts of your body. However, you can participate in recovery exercises like recovery yoga or a walk around your neighborhood. Running recovery days will look a little different for everyone, but the main theme should be rest.
How many recovery days should I take after a long run?
Many physical therapists will recommend at least 2-3 recovery days per week for runners pending their level of fitness and physical health. However, after a long run, it can be beneficial to have one full recovery day with no activity and then 1-2 other recovery days with light activity unrelated to running (i.e., swimming, yoga, etc.).
After a really long run, younger runners can usually benefit from 2 full days off of activity, and older runners can benefit from 3 full days off.