How to Recover Like a Professional Runner
Recovery isn’t separate from training, it’s integral to training
Amy Cragg is a two-time Olympian, world champion, and frequent podium resident at the world’s biggest marathons. Terrence Mahon is a highly respected coach who has mentored legends like Deena Kastor, Ryan Hall, and rising star Nikki Hiltz. You are you.
No, you may not have their speed, but what you share with them—and all runners— is a common goal: to maximize your potential and be the best version of yourself.
That isn’t simply accomplished by running more. For Cragg and Mahon’s athletes, what happens outside of running is as integral to victory as the miles, if not more. Ask Cragg or Mahon for the key to sustained running success and they’ll give you the same answer: recovery. We know this, because we actually asked. Here’s what they told us about how to recover like a pro.
“Recovery” used to only apply to injury rehabilitation. Today, elite athletes and coaches view it as a means of preventative maintenance. If you wait until something goes wrong to work on keeping your body healthy, you’ve lost.
Cragg remembers when her approach changed: her second year as a pro and her first time training at altitude under Mahon with the legendary Kastor.
“I switched to the marathon and training intensified,” she says. “Up to then, I dealt with injuries as they came; at that point I realized I had to prevent them. There was no way to achieve what I wanted without being on top of recovery.”
“Your ability to train hard is governed solely by your ability to recover,” Mahon adds. “If I can recover that much faster, I can make my next workout that much better and keep from getting hurt.”
In short, recovery isn’t separate from training, it’s essential to training.
Use the right modalities
Recovering like a pro means understanding what modality you need and when you need it.
While all modalities can be helpful, many, like deep tissue massage, are themselves hard work and can cause trauma to the body’s systems. Schedule those after a hard workout, or when you know you don’t have another tough session the next day.
Understand where certain modalities fit into a training scheme. For example, ice baths might be best saved for the period right before a goal race. Why? Your body needs to endure the inflammatory response to heavy training in order to build itself stronger. Waiting until the end of a buildup for your ice baths still reduces soreness without inhibiting that growth over time.
One thing Mahon believes is great any time, however, is compression therapy, like the boots made by NormaTec.
“We can use those the day before, right after, or the day after a session with no
residual trouble,” he said.
The veteran Cragg agrees. She uses NormaTec after every hard workout and long run to enhance blood flow and prevent injuries.
“Most of these take some effort. [With NormaTec], you plug it in, and it does the work for you so you don’t lose energy over recovery. You can sit there for 30 minutes watching TV or reading,” she said. “It’s relaxing, and makes getting out for that next run so much better. That’s huge, especially for the marathon when it feels like you’re constantly running.”
Build recovery into your schedule
Track Tuesday. Long run Sunday. As you train, sessions become part of your vocabulary and routine. Recovery should be no different.
Know what you’re trying to accomplish with your recovery. Mahon suggests seeing a therapist to identify trouble areas and create a program to maintain them, as you’d create a running program. For example, before every run you might foam roll problem spots for two minutes, percussion massage them for two minutes, and then after the run, sit in NormaTec boots while answering emails.
For Cragg, a simple five-minute warmup and cooldown is the key to maintaining a recovery routine. “Taking the five minutes away from your run to recover before and after is better than those extra 10 minutes of running,” she said.
Cragg’s activations consist of front and side lunges, front and side squats, swing-throughs, hip circles, marches, knee pulls, quad stretches, and walk-throughs or sweeps (5-10 of each).
Mahon buys this strategy. “Maybe your first mile is slow or it takes you two to get up to speed. If I cut that out and put good motor patterns to use right away instead of having to find them and loosen up, the overall quality is better.”
Get some sleep
Balancing training with everyday life means making sacrifices. Too often that means cutting sleep. Mahon says this a mistake. He makes sure his athletes sleep the same number of hours at the same time every day, and monitors their sleep levels and state of readiness with smart watches or trackers to adjust their sleep plans.
Cragg, a night owl by nature who needs to maximize her recovery between twice daily runs, recognizes how challenging this can be. She found success through scheduling and routine. Cragg forced herself to be in bed with a cup of tea and a book at the same time each night so that even if she wasn’t sleeping, she was building the habit of prepping her body to rest. Now, she has a strong sleep routine that gets dialed in as raceday approaches.
“Without good sleep, you’ll be overdone before you know it. It was really hard for me; the biggest thing is to really try to stay in the habit until it comes naturally.”
Take small steps towards big gains
Cragg has heard all the excuses before and has the same response: tiny things add up to big improvements. “Snack right after your run instead of waiting an hour,” she said. “If you can’t do 45 minutes of stretching every day, do five before your run. If you only have three minutes a day to foam roll, do it for three minutes. That’s huge.”
The difference is intention. “Foam rolling everything 20 times really fast, going through the motions and not thinking about it, will do you less than if you take your time focusing on 10 good rolls through specific spots of need.”
The returns will be well worth it. Mahon saw three athletes from his Mammoth group (Castor, the great Meb Keflezighi, and Mahon’s wife, Jen Rhines) maintain the peaks of their 20s through their 30s and compete well into their 40s. And Cragg believes proper recovery has added a decade of good running to a career that, she says, wouldn’t have lasted more than three or four years if she hadn’t improved.
“The marathon isn’t just 26.2 miles. That’s the last bit of thousands of miles that go into it,” she said. “Every step you can take that’s even a tiny bit better, not injured, really adds up.”