which recov­ery meth­od is for you?

A com­mon short­com­ing we find among the ultra mara­thon pop­u­la­tion is the lack of focus on appro­pri­ate recov­ery and rest. To suc­ceed dur­ing a multi-stage race, being able to go again is one of the most import­ant factors for suc­cess, and to do well in your train­ing it is exactly the same. Being able to put in qual­ity ses­sions is essen­tial in order to get to that start line in the best pos­sible nick.

Over the past few months the Ultra X team have been tri­al­ing vari­ous recov­ery meth­ods with the aim of draw­ing back the cur­tain on some of the more unusu­al offer­ings that are out there, as well as going through all the “old school” stuff. The pro­cess was simple — ham­mer ourselves in train­ing and the next day try one of the options out there and com­pare the dif­fer­ences.

Check out below for our under­stand­ing of the sci­ence as well as our ver­dicts on the best options out there.

1) Cryo­ther­apy

How it works:

Whole Body Cryo­ther­apy is a soph­ist­ic­ated meth­od of cold ther­apy involving three minutes of skin expos­ure to tem­per­at­ures between -130 and -190°C. First util­ized in Japan to treat rheum­at­ic dis­eases, stud­ies con­duc­ted over the last couple of dec­ades have estab­lished it as a treat­ment for redu­cing symp­toms of pain and inflam­ma­tion. It works by stim­u­lat­ing per­ceived life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions which cause severe vaso­con­stric­tion, fol­lowed by rap­id vas­odila­tion, which pur­portedly imme­di­ately improves blood cir­cu­la­tion, ensur­ing adequate deliv­ery of oxy­gen and nutri­ents to bod­ily tis­sues, while improv­ing the body’s nat­ur­al abil­ity to elim­in­ate tox­ins.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Speeds up recov­ery
  • Reduces over­all body inflam­ma­tion
  • Reduces muscle dis­com­fort and fatigue
  • Improves immunity and helps elim­in­ate ill­ness (e.g. a cold iron­ic­ally)
  • Improves phys­ic­al and men­tal per­form­ance

When:

After a hard workout it is said that the treat­ment can aid recov­ery 50% faster than usu­al.

Cost:

An intro­duct­ory ses­sion at FYBO Cryo­ther­apy (which we trialed) is £35 . This is three minutes expos­ure at -180°C. Fur­ther treat­ments are more expens­ive unless bought as part of a lar­ger pack­age. Upon com­par­is­on this was one of the bet­ter value clin­ics in Lon­don with most being double this.

Ver­dict

As an exper­i­ence, it’s def­in­itely worth it. In a slightly mas­ochist­ic way get­ting dropped to -180°C is quite some­thing. The plunging tem­per­at­ure pro­duces a fight or flight response in the body mean­ing you get a massive endorph­in hit when you’re done. Unfor­tu­nately, no spe­cif­ic per­form­ance gains were felt imme­di­ately or over the next 24 hours, so whilst it def­in­itely con­trib­utes to alert­ness, we were not sure the feel­ing was much dif­fer­ent to had we decided to go for a dip in the North Sea.

Appar­ently, if you look at the top five paid ath­letes in the world, all use cryo­ther­apy on a reg­u­lar basis, and yes maybe if there was cash to burn we would be doing the same.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

2) Sport Mas­sage

How it works:

Sports mas­sage is a form of mas­sage involving the manip­u­la­tion of soft tis­sue (con­nect­ive tis­sue that has not hardened into bone and car­til­age — i.e. skin, muscles, ten­dons, lig­a­ments and fas­cia) to bene­fit someone engaged spe­cific­ally in a phys­ic­al activ­ity. It’s designed to assist in cor­rect­ing prob­lems and imbal­ances caused from repet­it­ive and strenu­ous action by decreas­ing ten­sion­ing, releas­ing adhe­sions between tis­sues, increas­ing range of motion, realign­ing muscle fibres and pre­vent­ing minor soft-tis­sue injur­ies.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Increased tis­sue per­meab­il­ity
  • Stretch­ing
  • Breaks down scar tis­sue
  • Improves muscle elasti­city
  • Opens micro-cir­cu­la­tion

When:

Used to recov­er after tough train­ing ses­sions or between events. A lot of ath­letes use it when there is a quick turn­around needed between com­pet­i­tions.

Cost:

30 min sports mas­sage is £45 (Six Physio).

Ver­dict:

Pain­ful — yes, effect­ive- yes, no pain — no gain and all that. A sports mas­sage is great, par­tic­u­larly when you are just feel­ing a little slow and noth­ing is spe­cific­ally tight — we all know the feel­ing. The team from Six Physio who we saw see a lot of ath­letes and week­end war­ri­ors using mas­sage to mir­ror increased train­ing and mileage and also for a quick loosen­er when things get a bit tight. We agree that it’s great to use as a com­pli­ment to train­ing when the mileage is start­ing to creep up. Fur­ther, hav­ing someone qual­i­fied to give their opin­ion is always bene­fi­cial. 100% worth the invest­ment, even if it is just once a month.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Dry Need­ling

How it works:

Dry need­ling and acu­punc­ture (not the same thing FYI) involve punc­tur­ing the skin with thin needles for thera­peut­ic pur­poses. While a shared aim is to provide relief from pain, the prac­tices are oth­er­wise very dif­fer­ent. Prac­ti­tion­ers of dry need­ling attempt to release ten­sion from knots and pres­sure points in muscles, where­as acu­punc­tur­ists insert needles to release endorphins and affect the nervous sys­tem. Tra­di­tion­ally, acu­punc­ture was used to align a person’s energy, or chi, where­as dry need­ling is more spe­cif­ic and tar­gets trig­ger points put under stress by phys­ic­al exer­tion.

Claimed bene­fits

  • Relaxes Muscles
  • Increases blood flow
  • Relieves pain and tight­ness
  • Improves range of motion
  • Speeds up recov­ery

When:

Post exer­cise where there is spe­cif­ic tight­ness. It is recom­men­ded that after the treat­ment there should be a peri­od of 24 hours without exer­cise in which the sub­ject should con­cen­trate on hydra­tion.

Cost:

30 min ses­sion is £45 (Six Physio).

Ver­dict:

Hav­ing needles stuck in and wiggled around your body isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and of course you’ve got to head over to a clin­ic and find someone qual­i­fied to do so (it can’t be done from the com­fort of your own home). How­ever, for instant relief we found the exper­i­ence out­stand­ing. Spe­cif­ic trig­ger points which are tight can be tar­geted with laser accur­acy mean­ing that a point or tight band can be imme­di­ately released. It was as if someone had just released a bow­string in the hammy! In terms of gen­er­al bene­fits, it is sim­il­ar over­all to sports mas­sage, what really dif­fer­en­ti­ates it is the abil­ity to get deep­er and tar­get spe­cif­ic tight spots. We are big fans.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Ice Bath

How it works:

Delayed onset muscle sore­ness (DOMS) com­monly res­ults after sports and exer­cise activ­ity. Cold‐water immer­sion (CWI), which involves people immers­ing them­selves in water at tem­per­at­ures of less than 15°C, is some­times used to man­age muscle sore­ness after exer­cise and to speed up recov­ery time. Ice baths reduce the inflam­ma­tion of the muscles and also with­draw the blood from them which can act as a paink­iller, remov­ing lact­ic acid and replen­ish­ing with new fueled blood once you get warm again.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Faster recov­ery
  • Reduc­tion of muscle and tis­sue dam­age
  • Improved muscle func­tion
  • Reduc­tion in inflam­ma­tion and pain
  • Helps Cent­ral Nervous Sys­tem through aid­ing sleep

When:

The soon­er you get in an ice bath after a workout or com­pet­i­tion, the more effect­ive the treat­ment is.

Cost:

If you’ve got a bath at home it’s free. How­ever, it’s not quite as simple as run­ning the cold tap and jump­ing in… the tem­per­at­ure of an ice bath should be approx­im­ately 10–15° so it’s worth get­ting a ther­mo­met­er to check. The time is also import­ant — lim­it your time to 10 to 15 minutes. There are also vari­ous spas which offer the treat­ment in a con­trolled set­ting.

Ver­dict:

If your legs are feel­ing a little abused get­ting in a cold bath gives a shock and reduces the inflam­ma­tion big time. If you wack on a pod­cast and have a cuppa on the side the exper­i­ence can even be enjoy­able.

How­ever, there is mixed opin­ion about the sci­ence because the pro­cess is effect­ively redu­cing the inflam­ma­tion which comes from train­ing stress (inflam­ma­tion isn’t neces­sar­ily a bad thing). In order to get the most from the adapt­a­tion that comes from train­ing stress it’s actu­ally sug­ges­ted to lim­it ice bathing and to only use them when the body is really feel­ing the strain and your train­ing qual­ity risks suf­fer­ing as a res­ult. Either way it’s a use­ful tool to have in the recov­ery arsen­al when the body is feel­ing the strain.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Hot Bath

How it works:

Stud­ies have shown that soak­ing in a hot bath can lower your blood pres­sure, warm (and relax) your muscles, sooth­ing phys­ic­ally but also men­tally. Whilst cold baths causes the con­stric­tion of blood ves­sels which not only reduces inflam­ma­tion but relieves pain by numb­ing the affected muscles and tis­sues. A hot bath causes blood ves­sels to swell and increases cir­cu­la­tion to muscles and warms up stiff or pain­ful muscles and joints. When com­bined with stretch­ing, it can loosen stiff muscles, joints, and ten­dons and improve over­all mobil­ity and can bene­fit run­ners-in-train­ing who may have pre-run tight­ness or aches.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Improves blood cir­cu­la­tion
  • Assists remov­al of lact­ic acid and oth­er tox­ins
  • Increases elasti­city of col­la­gen fibres which improves joint range of motion
  • Improved mood
  • Assists sleep

When:

Not straight after — des­pite how good it may feel! A hot bath pro­motes blood flow to the muscles by dilat­ing blood ves­sels — this is not what you want imme­di­ately after exer­cise. Ideally it is recom­men­ded to have a hot bath at least 24 hours after exer­cising when you might be feel­ing stiff.

Cost:

As with the ice bath, this ones pretty good value, but again be wary of get­ting it right — for med­ic­al bene­fits baths should be around 36°C and used for 10–20 minutes.

Ver­dict

The epi­tome of the hard-core, no-pain-no-gain approach to train­ing is the post ses­sion ice bath, where, after push­ing your muscles to their abso­lute lim­its, you soak them in eye-water­ingly cold water to speed their recov­ery before the next sav­age workout, so the idea that there is a gentler, more sooth­ing path to great­ness will be music to many ears! From a tri­al it’s bang on, tight muscles are relieved and it is much more enjoy­able than a cold one! No more excuses then to not take advant­age of a bath or hot tub ses­sion to help your mind and body relax and to stim­u­late the heal­ing and recov­ery pro­cess.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Com­pres­sion Cloth­ing

How it works:

The pain you feel in the hours and days after a run is the res­ult of micro­trauma to your muscles and con­nect­ive tis­sue caus­ing inflam­ma­tion, so by increas­ing blood cir­cu­la­tion to the muscles in the legs it can help them repair quick­er. Com­pres­sion cloth­ing (tights or socks being pop­u­lar for run­ners) help do this, boost­ing blood flow, help­ing remove lact­ic acid and there­fore sup­posedly help to reduce any DOMS. Not only can they be used dur­ing exer­cise, you can wear them day and night when not train­ing under­neath nor­mal clothes.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Increases recov­ery speed
  • Improves cir­cu­la­tion
  • Reduces muscle fatigue
  • Reduces chance of cramp
  • Increased power

When:

You can bene­fit from wear­ing com­pres­sion imme­di­ately or as soon as pos­sible after exer­cise, and for as long as is com­fort­able. A study from the Aus­trali­an Insti­tute of Sport showed bene­fits from wear­ing com­pres­sion tights for recov­ery from just 30 minu­ites of wear on elite cyc­lists. Do note how­ever, that when used for pro­longed peri­ods the body will adapts to the pres­ence mean­ing that there will be dimin­ish­ing returns. I.e. take those leg­gings off some­times!

Cost:

This all depends on the brand — Nike, Under­Ar­mour, SKINs and 2XU all seem to be safe bets with leg­gings ran­ging from £45- 120. Seem expens­ive for a pair of tights? Yea maybe, but for unlim­ited use (with­in reas­on) we think that it’s a good­ie.

Ver­dict

There is mixed sci­entif­ic research on the proven bene­fits of com­pres­sion gear. How­ever, even if they do not reduce muscle fatigue, com­pres­sion tights may provide anoth­er bene­fit… a placebo! Not only does the cloth­ing provide an import­ant aspect of com­fort, but run­ners have repor­ted simply feel­ing faster — and that mat­ters. Any men­tal tool when train­ing hard and run­ning long dis­tances can be bene­fi­cial. We think they are a pretty great addi­tion to the main­ten­ance toolkit and if you can bear put­ting them on under your jeans then it’s an easy win as you can just put them on when the legs are a bit achy. They are also per­fect for those long plane jour­neys on your way to an inter­na­tion­al race, such as an Ultra X, to ensure your cir­cu­la­tion stays on point.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Cup­ping

How it works:

Cup­ping is a form of altern­at­ive ther­apy which acts as an inver­ted mas­sage. Rather than apply­ing pres­sure, skin is pulled away with sim­il­ar effects. Cups are heated, cre­at­ing a vacu­um which are applied to a patients skin, as the air inside cools, the skin is gently pulled away from the body, allow­ing blood to pool in the area. The cups are then kept in place for sev­er­al minutes which allows affected tis­sue to receive more nutri­ents and oxy­gen. It’s been linked with reliev­ing mus­cu­lar pains and help­ing with flex­ib­il­ity, through reliev­ing stiff fas­cia and get­ting blood cir­cu­lat­ing to areas where it’s become stag­nant.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Improved blood flow
  • Improved flex­ib­il­ity
  • Decreases ten­sion
  • Increases range of motion
  • Release of deep tis­sue

When:

There is no spe­cif­ic time frame post exer­cise recom­men­ded to use cup­ping, but do note that it is recom­men­ded to avoid shower­ing, swim­ming, intense exer­cise, steams rooms or saunas, or any oth­er expos­ure to the extreme cold or heat for 12–24 hours after a ses­sion.

Cost:

15 min treat­ment (it’s quick) is £15 (Treat­well).

Ver­dict:

We all saw the curi­ous purple circles on Michael Phelps at the Rio Olympics, and now we know where they came from. There’s cer­tainly some evid­ence that cup­ping can be effect­ive tool in man­aging mus­cu­lo­skelet­al con­di­tions, how­ever, research also indic­ates that there are lim­it­a­tions. Ideally, we need more stud­ies to explore the use of cup­ping for ath­letes. We tried dry cup­ping (N.b. there is also some­thing called wet cup­ping involving both suc­tion and con­trolled medi­cin­al bleed­ing after) and, whilst the exper­i­ence of hav­ing hot glass cups placed on your legs with a pop is bizar­rely there­peut­ic, we felt no dif­fer­ent fol­low­ing the treat­ment.

Which recovery method is for you? Ultra X

Foam Roller

How it works:

Foam Rolling stretches out your muscles, increases blood flow and cir­cu­la­tion, and helps break down scar tis­sue to speed up your run­ning recov­ery as well as releas­ing pain­ful trig­ger points. What is great about rollers is that you can get many of the bene­fits of a ther­ap­ist or mas­seuse from the com­fort of your own home with this inex­pens­ive piece of workout equip­ment through myofas­cial release (apply­ing a low-intens­ity force to soft tis­sue). Done cor­rectly con­trac­ted muscles are allowed to relax, which improves blood and nutri­ent flow to the area which means that muscles can oper­ate bet­ter.

Claimed Bene­fits:

  • Increases blood flow
  • Helps pre­vents injury
  • Breaks up scar tis­sue
  • Improves mobil­ity and flex­ib­il­ity
  • Removes Lact­ic Acid to aid recov­ery

When:

Foam rolling is a great way to stretch out your tired muscles after a run, but pre-run it can help you warm up by increas­ing blood flow to act­ive muscles- just ensure to com­pli­ment this with some dynam­ic also. If you’re short on time before or after your run, try and incor­por­ate just a few minutes of foam rolling into your bed­time routine.

Cost:

Avail­able from £10 and they travel well. They’re a great option and are a must have item for the every­day runner’s ward­robe.

Ver­dict

Prob­ably the most widely and best known of run­ners’ recov­ery tools, love it or hate it, it’s some­thing worth hav­ing at home. What’s import­ant to stress is that you need to do it right- com­mon mis­takes are foam rolling dir­ectly on an injured area, rolling too quickly, stay­ing on one spot for too long and using bad pos­ture. So rather than see­ing it as a magic cure, take the same approach to that you would for a train­ing ses­sion and focus. A lot of run­ners will only roll when they are told to, which is often when they are already injured! By plan­ning and rolling from day 1 you help mit­ig­ate the risk of injury in the first place.

Con­clu­sion:

A lot of these treat­ments do sim­il­ar things but the key dif­fer­ence is how you feel approach­ing and using them. The only right meth­od for you will be the meth­od that is sus­tain­able.

It should be said that spend­ing time and money on these alone is not going to get you to the fin­ish line. Injury pre­ven­tion should focus ini­tially on load, strength train­ing and move­ment work before con­sid­er­ing some of the meth­ods out­lined above. Nutri­tion, sleep and load man­age­ment (not con­sidered in this piece) are the start­ing blocks and without get­ting these right first, spend­ing time and money on meth­ods of recov­ery is not best prac­tice!

That said when the body is feel­ing those miles, a little TLC can do won­ders and make those train­ing ses­sions just that bit easi­er to com­plete, whilst redu­cing the risk of injury through stress­ing overly tight muscles. Fur­ther­more, the emo­tion­al value of ther­apy for indi­vidu­als is some­thing which should not be dis­coun­ted! Any of the above treat­ments are com­pletely worth­while invest­ments for any­one who can afford it and “feels bet­ter” after, regard­less of the med­ic­al case.

A huge thank you to E-Puls­ive, Six Physio, FYBOCryo, Jus­tOne­Body, Treat­well who sup­por­ted this art­icle by offer­ing their treat­ment and advice (N.B. this is not an ad).

Dis­claim­er: Ultra X are not qual­i­fied physio­ther­ap­ists and any sig­ni­fic­ant change to one’s rehab­il­it­a­tion meth­ods should be con­sidered on an indi­vidu­al basis and after con­sulta­tion with a qual­i­fied med­ic­al prac­ti­tion­er. This was purely our exper­i­ence of each meth­od.