I've been wanting to write this post for a while, but for some reason, I procrastinated the actual writing part. To be honest, I was searching patent literature rather than writing this... I think probably it's because my expertise in the matter of recovery stems from a magical period of my life that thinking about sometimes still feels a little like salt in a fresh wound. For those of you who don't know, I spent most of the summer of 2009 at the Caspersen Olympic Training Site in Princeton, training and making the senior national rowing team. I represented the USA in the women's lightweight quad and won a bronze medal at the World Championships. This was all right after I passed my qualifying exams to become a PhD candidate at MIT. I was truly living the dream. A few months later, I got badly injured and was never able to return to that level of competition. It still hurts.
Anyways, when you are at the training center, it is absolutely critical that you are at your best every day, for every practice, and that you never show any weakness. If you're not at your best, someone else will be and that someone else will take your place on the team. From my time "living the dream", I learned that you have to take your recovery just as seriously as your training, and I learned a ton of tricks to make sure that my legs felt fresh every day! This isn't a super scientific post, it's what I think (from experience) are the most effective means to make sure that you're at your best for your next training session or race.
Contrast Showers: I used these half-heartedly during the world championships since no tub was available, but really fell in love with them this year. Now they are my favorite recovery trick for the summer time. Basically, it's what it sounds like: You alternate between 1 minute of hot water (as hot as you can stand it) and 1 minute of cold water (as cold as you can stand it). I do this for the duration of my shower, so that it's very efficient multi-tasking. The idea here is that during the cold bouts, your blood (which is full of the waste compounds from your hard workout) rushes out of your limbs and to your core, to support life. Fresh blood travels back to the limbs during the warm bouts. (This is better for summer or indoor workouts, as it helps bring your core temperature down. Once the temperature dropped below 60F, I got too cold for this to be effective.)
Compression Socks: They sell a lot of fancy, expensive compression socks and tights for recovery, and this is because they definitely help! Compression socks are my favorite trick for recovering during the colder months, or for keeping your legs fresh while driving to a race. I've tried more expensive versions, but my favorites are these $5 socks that you can get at your local drug store. Basically, the idea here is that you're compressing your lower legs to prevent the blood (with waste products from your workout) from pooling and to help your legs recirculate the blood.
Legs up the Wall: This literally drains the blood out of your legs, which takes the built up toxins with it so that when you stand up, fresh blood rushes in. I stay like this for 30 minutes, but some of my friends can get the effect in less time.
Ice Baths: We all know that icing an injury helps bring down inflammation, right? The idea here is the same, with the added benefit that all of your blood will rush out of your legs and into your core for survival. Thus it will be replaced by fresh blood once you warm up. Professional athletes use extreme versions of cryotherapy but we can get a similar effect by filling our bathtubs with cold water, adding 2 bags of ice, and sitting there for 20 minutes. Make sure to put on a warm fleece or jacket and hat while your sitting in the tub to prevent actual hypothermia. If your body temperature still hasn't returned to normal an hour after you get out of the tub, you may want to take a warm shower to get things flowing again. I always have to do this because I get really cold!
Sleep: This seems obvious, but it needs to be said. Everyone's needs are different, but you'll perform better if you're getting 8 hours of sleep. Or more if you're trying to recover from a really tough race or training session! I took a nap every afternoon while I was at the training center, and still take naps every day of multi-day races.
Proper Nutrition: There is a "magic window" in the hour after you work out, where your body utilizes the food you give it to actively rebuild the damage that you've inflicted. After that time, the calories are used less effectively. During your magic hour, it's best to consume both carbohydrates and protein, preferably in a 2.5 to 1 ratio. There are also many papers that suggest that cherry juice can help with the recovery process.
Anyways, those are the tricks that I think help the most. Lately, I've been making smoothies right when I get back from my rides, to jump start my recovery with a tasty elixir containing carbohydrates and protein in a 2.5 to 1 ratio. I keep it simple and I think the antioxidants in the blueberries help!
Super-Simple Recovery Smoothie
1c frozen blueberries
1/2 scoop chocolate protein powder (should be ~12g protein. I like using a mixture of hemp/ pea/ rice protein, but I'm still working on figuring out my preferred brand)