This weekend I attended the 34th Marathon Medicine conference- an annual event which explores the medicine and science of marathon running. Hosted by the Virgin Money London Marathon, it brings together a field of experts to discuss the latest research in marathon running. Perfect for a running geek like me.
The first talk by Dr Ken van Someren, Director of Research and Development at the GSK Human Performance Laboratory, discussed the latest evidence in how to optimise athletic recovery, and it’s safe to say, I was quite surprised with what he told us. I’ll definitely be making some changes to my training and recovery as a result and will be researching some of these topics in more detail to share with you. (Apologies, I don’t have the references from the talk at present- I’m trying to get hold of them so I can explore each topic in more detail.)
As somebody who tends to get injured in each training cycle and at times have taken weeks, if not months, to get over an endurance event, I was keen to know what I could do differently (and what I should avoid) to break this pattern. Here’s what I learnt:
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep is essential for recovery and not getting enough shut eye can increase your risk of injury. The latest evidence shows that runners that get less than 8 hours less sleep per night have a 1.7 times greater risk of becoming injured.
Practice good hand hygiene
Illness hugely impacts your ability to train effectively. I’m sure we’ve all been there and it’s really frustrating. You have a stinking cold and have to decide whether to train through it or take a week or two off, missing out on huge amounts of mileage. Apparently at the Olympics, British athletes were advised to avoid hand shaking to reduce the risk of infection- it perhaps looked a little rude, but no doubt helped the success of our athletes! Following an event like a marathon, your go through a short period of immunosuppression, meaning you’re more susceptible to infection. In this period, practicing good hygeine (hello, hand santitiser) could reduce your risk of becoming unwell and scuppering your recovery.
Cold Water Immersion
I’ve always thought that you had to immerse yourself in ice water to get any benefit in muscle recovery, but fortunately. this isn’t the case. There’s evidence, instead, for the use of cold water immersion to moderately reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The water should ideally be 14 degrees (conveniently, the temperature it comes out of the tap) and you should stay immersed for 14 minutes. This is definitely something I could add to my post long run routine.
Compression garments may not be useful
There is some evidence that wearing compression garments aids muscle recovery, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see benefit from off the shelf compression garments as one size really doesn’t fit all. The ideal pressure to achieve results is 17mmHg for the calf and 14mmHg for the quads, which for most people is impossible to measure. The general advice is that anything you’re likely to buy over the counter won’t provide anywhere near that level of compression required to see a benefit, but if you want to give it a go, buy the smallest size you can squeeze into!
Take montmorency cherry supplements to help recover from a marathon
This was the most surprising evidence for me from the whole conference, as I’m usually quite cynical about the use of such supplements to help recovery. I was proven very wrong, as apparently there is a lot of strong evidence for their effectiveness. I’m going to do some more research on this, as I think it’s really interesting and definitely challenges my pre-existing beliefs. Apparently, cherry supplements should be taken for 5 days before a marathon and 2 days following the race to help optimise recovery.
Don’t underestimate the power of placebo.
The mind is a powerful thing, and performance is clearly influenced by many factors. We all have pre- race rituals and training strategies, which are unlikely to be evidence based, but seem to help us all the same. I loved this quote:
“For a scientist why something works is as important as whether it works, for a coach whether it works is everything, how is irrelevant”
A good example about the power of placebo is the use of cupping in the Olympics. There is no evidence that cupping improves performance, but it was used by many of the athletes, including Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest swimmer of all time. Evidence based or not, you need to consider what would happen if you took it away from the athlete. If they believe it works, it’s likely their performance would suffer if you suddenly took it away.
Using anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen
Many people, myself included, use anti- inflammatory medications to help with muscle soreness and improve recovery. Dr Van Someren brought a really interesting study to light which showed that if an untrained athlete (eg someone who is running or training for the first time) uses an over the counter dose of ibuprofen, it actually reduces muscle regeneration and recovery with no difference in muscle soreness. However, if the same athlete took the same dose after a 12 week resistance training programme it actually increased the gain in muscle volume and strength. So, essentially, if you train regularly it can definitely help to optimise recovery and performance but if you’re a newbie runner, it’s best to avoid taking anti-inflammatories initially.
(It’s important to remember that using such drugs does come with risks; they can cause kidney, heart and gastric problems if used regularly.)
What techniques do you use to optimise recovery? Have any of these come as a surprise to you?