Which Ultra Running Recovery Method Is For You?

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

23 August 2019

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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.

Man Undergoing Cryotherapy Treatment

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 utilised 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 (eg 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 trialled) 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 than if we had 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.

Runner Receiving Massage at Ultra X 125 England

Sports 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 – ie 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 respond to 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.

Dry Needling Treatment

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.

Man in Ice Bath

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.

People in Hot Tub for Recovery

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 cause 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 one’s 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.

Female Runner at Ultra X Sri Lanka

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 adapt to the presence, meaning that there will be diminishing returns (ie 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? Yeah 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.

Man Undergoing Cupping Therapy

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 is applied to a patient’s 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. Cupping has 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 recommended timeframe post-exercise in which 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 (NB 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 therapeutic, we felt no different following the treatment.

Woman Foam Rolling

Foam rolling

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 stretching 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 include foam rolling directly onto 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 one 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-PulsiveSix PhysioFYBOCryoJust One BodyTreatwell who supported this article by offering their treatment and advice (NB 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. 

Female Runner Wearing Ultra X Kit

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