12 Ways to Improve Running Recovery and Bounce Back Fast

man running

If you’re a runner and you’ve suffered from pain in your low back, hips, knees, shins, feet, muscles, or nerves, you’ve probably tried many different treatment methods so you could stay with your sport. 

In this article, we’ll discuss how you can get effective relief for running- or workout-related pain, as well as shorten the time you need for recovery. We’ll also talk about red light therapy, which could be the game-changer for faster recovery that you’ve been waiting for.

Why Does Running Hurt?

In the mid-1970s the jogging craze hit America. Soon afterward, a Runner's World magazine reader poll revealed that 60 percent of runners had developed chronic problems related to their sport. In the nearly 50 years since, with amazing sports medicine advancements, high-tech shoes, and mountains of sage advice available with a few clicks on a keyboard, people still suffer from shin splints, sore hips, pinched sciatic nerves, and low back pain.

The main reasons for running-related pain are:

  • Most people lead relatively sedentary lives
  • Running is a repetitive motion
  • Many who try running go too hard or too long (or both), too soon

It’s usually not just one of these factors but a combination of all three that results in injury and pain and results in unnecessarily long recovery times.

For instance, many of us spend a great deal of our time sitting. When we do exercise, it’s common to get into a fitness rut of exercises that feel good; i.e., what we’re good at. Over time, our bodies have become less adapted to the variety of movement that is necessary for functional strength/flexibility and injury prevention.

Repetitive motion on hard surfaces, which results in incredible forces on the body, is compounded by excess weight, poor biomechanics, and overdoing it. Most new runners are eager to get fit fast, and as a result, they quickly overtrain.

Even seasoned runners can fall into habits that prolong recovery. After eight hours of sitting, getting up off the office chair and going for a run is hard on the body, as opposed to already being limbered up after a day of physical activity. Poor stretching and doing too much too fast (especially after injury and a desire to regain lost fitness) can extend recovery times.

Many people don't think of recovery in terms of rebuilding; they think of it in terms of recovering from pain. Therefore, recovery—a vitally important element of training—is often neglected. The result? Pain.

Recovery Practices That Also Prevent Pain

Here’s a quick breakdown of common treatments for running-related pain. These are also practices you can incorporate into your regular post-workout recovery program to help prevent pain and injury.

Back, knee, hip, or shin pain—especially if you run on pavement—could be caused by repetitive motion and poor biomechanics. Pavement is hard on the body, even with cushioned shoes. The force exerted on the knees is several times your body weight, and more when going downhill.

Pavement isn't a problem if you're in shape, have good form, and don't overdo your mileage. However, excess weight or simply poor running habits can cause joint misalignment and damage to the joints; going too far too fast, and not giving yourself enough recovery time, leads to injuries.

The following pain remedies are also part of a good recovery plan. The focus is on the prevention of injury and rebuilding the body stronger than it was before, rather than just a cure for aches.

woman using red light therapy in a dark room

Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy is a safe, natural method for boosting your body’s natural healing processes. Some runners report that using it helps them feel less sore after runs, and professional athletes in soccer, American football, the MLB, and more all use it regularly to boost performance. 

Read to the end to see the science behind how red light therapy works, and to read the story of one runner who used it to reduce chronic pain and improve her daily running ritual. 

Footwear Matters

Make sure to get supportive footwear that puts your foot in the correct position, especially on long runs. It’s worth seeking the expertise of a qualified physical therapist or athletic coach who can help you choose the best shoes for you. Replace your shoes often because the cushioning breaks down quickly.

man in ice bath

Ice Baths

Enjoy an ice bath immediately after a training run or hard workout. Ice baths help reduce inflammation and can speed up recovery.

Take Time to Warm Up

Make sure to warm up thoroughly before every run or resistance workout. Functional range of motion is more important than having the flexibility of a yogi.

Limber up before training to prime your body for activity. Start your run with slow, gentle dynamic stretching, which involves active movements that improve joint mobility and stretch the muscles without holding one position for extended periods. This gets the blood flow going without tearing cold, stiff muscle fibers. 

man stretching his hamstring

Cool Off and Stretch Afterward

Whenever you finish a run or resistance workout, take time to cool down. If your legs are stiff and achy 24 to 48 hours after a long run (known as delayed-onset muscle soreness), this is caused by microscopic tissue damage. It’s a normal result of exercise; muscle fibers break down during exercise and then rebuild tougher.

The worst thing you can do is get right in the car after a training run. Go for a walk after your run, and make deep post-run stretching a regular part of your recovery. 

Don’t Try to Rush Fitness

It’s important to build your fitness and endurance gradually. Know your limits; be the tortoise, not the hare. Anyone can get injured from running, and it’s often by doing more than you are capable of.

When adding mileage, keep in mind that your joints, as well as your muscles, need recovery time so they can handle greater training loads. No matter how long you have been running, that process cannot be rushed. Build mileage in extremely slow increments: 3 to 5 percent per week.

Go Easy After Injury

When you’re ready to return to running after being injured, take it easy. Your goal may be to get back to your old weekly mileage or speed but go slowly and never sacrifice your muscle or joint health for aggressive goals. Instead, adjust your goals and training. Don't go for long runs until your body signals you that it's ready.

woman lifting weights

Add Strength Training

To stabilize your hips, knees, and ankles, do strength training along with running. Proper mechanics and alignment, as well as flexibility, are important to injury-free sports. Running alone doesn’t strengthen the hip muscles or encourage proper biomechanics. An imbalance in the hip area can cause a ripple effect of pain during and after a run.

Strengthening the hips and core, and stretching the entire body, will increase leg stability and promote proper form. In the long run, this will help prevent training-related injury.

man drinking water

Drink Plenty of Water and Eat Well

To properly fuel muscles before, during, and after a run, keep yourself hydrated and eat nutritious snacks. Before a run, drink 5 to 10 oz. of water every 15 to 20 minutes, and during runs that last longer than 30 minutes, eat fruit or energy bars or gels.

Support recovery with plenty of nutrient-rich fresh vegetables, along with healthy sources of carbs and protein.

runner on outdoor trail

Vary Your Route

Don’t limit yourself to only roads and tracks when you run; instead, run on trails. The human body is designed for natural terrain. Uneven terrain builds strength in the smaller muscles that control lateral movement and offers a softer landing than pavement. 

Listen to Your Body

Athletes are used to pushing through the pain, but that can backfire. Most running injuries don’t come about abruptly; they creep up and continue worsening if you don’t heed your body’s signals, such as soreness, aches, excessive fatigue, poor sleep, or an altered stride. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to rest and give the injured area a chance to heal. 

woman stretching

Take Recovery Seriously

Remember, your muscles and your joints need time to rebuild, which is why rest is a vital component of recovery. Rest can be active, such as gentle cross-training (easy walking or swimming); or, it can even be chill-on-the-couch rest.

Stretching, drinking more water, using ice, and getting enough protein and micronutrients after a workout will reduce the time needed for recovery.

In the next section, we’ll discuss what goes into the recovery process for runners, and how red light therapy can be used both as prevention and an important part of reducing the time needed for recovery. 

The Recovery Process

Several processes occur sequentially as the body rebuilds itself stronger after a hard workout. Intense training causes microscopic tears in muscle fibers. These tiny traumas stimulate the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms.

The Inflammatory Phase

The first step in the healing process is inflammation, an immune response that manifests as pain, tenderness, redness, and/or swelling. During this phase, active recovery and/or rest are essential to give the body a chance to halt the damage.

The Repair Phase

After the initial “trauma response,” the body starts to repair itself by stimulating cell production to replace damaged or destroyed cells. During this phase, you’re still resting or actively recovering with gentle exercise and/or cross-training different muscle groups.

Good circulation and good collagen production are vital to the repair process. Collagen is a structural protein present in skin, muscles, and connective tissue. It’s what gives these structures their shape. 

The Rebuilding Phase

The final phase of healing is the rebuilding phase, where your muscles grow stronger after being broken down during training.  

What Slows Down Recovery?

Several factors can increase the time your body needs to recover:

  • Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which causes damage to cells;
  • Poor circulation (blood and lymph, a fluid that flows through the lymphatic system);
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction, or the inability of mitochondria within cells to convert raw materials into energy;
  • Poor collagen production (collagen helps rebuild muscle tissue);
  • Resuming activity before these micro-traumas are healed;
  • Poor stretching habits, which damage muscle fibers before exercise. 

If you want to reduce recovery times and improve performance, try a few of the ideas above. For an extra boost, try red light therapy ⁠— it supports your body’s natural healing processes, and can mitigate the factors that slow healing while helping your body become more resilient to the stresses of running and intense workouts. 

red light therapy in action

Running Recovery and Red Light Therapy 

Many elite athletes use red light therapy to prime their bodies for training and competition, to speed up recovery from normal training workouts, and to heal after being injured.

In this section, we’ll explore how red light can be used for running recovery, and share a runner’s story on how red light therapy helped her regain the ability to resume training after experiencing chronic pain. First, some background on this amazing therapeutic method. 

The therapeutic benefits of red light were originally discovered in the early 1990s by NASA—and the discovery was accidental. Researchers were experimenting with different wavelengths of light that would allow them to grow plants during space missions. The researchers found that when they were tending the plants, their hand injuries healed faster when exposed to the red light. This discovery sparked immense interest in the effects of red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths on other areas of human health, and researchers aggressively began studying it.

Red light therapy, which is also called photobiomodulation and low-level light therapy (LLLT), consists of shining precise wavelengths of red light on bare skin to stimulate beneficial biological processes within the body. These wavelengths, measured in nanometers, range from 630nm to 660nm for red light, and from 810nm to 850nm for NIR light. The term “red light” is often used to refer to both.

The effects of red light begin as soon as light photons absorb into the body’s tissues. This sparks a chain of processes that speed up healing and recovery from regular training or hard workouts.

Reduced Inflammation  

While acute inflammation is part of the healing process, inflammation can linger and become chronic, which puts additional stress on cells and can cause a host of health problems. 

According to a major 2017 research paper by Dr. Michael Hamblin, one of the world’s premier researchers on photobiomodulation, red light up-regulated inflammation in the acute phase, and down-regulated it once the inflammatory phase was over. 

A 2018 explorative study co-authored by Dr. Hamblin involved irradiating fibroblasts (cells found in connective tissue) with red light and NIR light. The study found that cells under oxidative stress, which can be caused by inflammation, increased energy production after receiving NIR light therapy. 

Dr. Hamblin also co-authored a review of clinical trials involving athletes. These trials found that pre-conditioning muscles before exercise and stimulating recovery after exercise using red light therapy had the potential to give athletes a competitive edge through faster recovery.

Improved Circulation

Recovery is dependent on increased blood flow to bring nutrients and oxygen to cells, and lymph to remove waste from the cells. 

During a 2017 study, a team of researchers from Austria found that red light therapy promotes microcirculation by stimulating the growth of both cardiovascular and lymphatic endothelial cells, which are tiny vessels at the very outermost reaches of the circulatory system. 

diagram of red light entering the cell

Cellular Metabolism and Energy Production

Just as you don’t function at your best when you’re exhausted, neither do your cells—but rest and more food aren’t always the answer. Your mitochondria, which are cellular energy producers, may not be efficiently converting raw materials into energy.

Treating mitochondrial dysfunction is one of the important ways red light therapy can accelerate your recovery process after a hard workout so you can maintain and build fitness.

When red and NIR light photons absorb into the skin, they interact with photosensitive chromophores in the mitochondria in cells. This stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary cellular fuel. Once cells get a boost of energy, they start to perform optimally.

During a 2008 study, researchers from the University of California–San Diego confirmed that red light mitochondrial photostimulation may promote proliferation and cellular homeostasis, meaning a return to normal functioning.  

Increased Collagen and Elastin Production

Although collagen isn’t as important to muscle repair, it is vital for the repair of cartilage in the knees, hips, and low back. Collagen toughens the connective tissue so that it can resist the pull of contracted muscles.

This 2015 study by researchers from Brazil focused on rats with osteoarthritis. They found that red light boosted the production of fibroblasts, the cells responsible for collagen production, and specifically Type 3 collagen, which is the type found in cartilage. This is encouraging news for runners with cartilage degeneration from osteoarthritis or other inflammatory disorders.

Pain Management

Sacroiliac joints, facet joints, hips, and knees are often trouble spots for runners. Pain anywhere in the body can contribute to altered gait, which can affect biomechanics and cause injuries to joints, including the hips, knees, and low back. 

Aside from working with a physical therapist to correct gait and posture, you may be interested in the following studies on the effects of red light on pain. During a small 2011 study, for instance, eight out of nine participants with sacroiliac joint pain showed significant improvement after treatment with 830nm NIR light, and six showed significantly increased trunk mobility.

Pinched nerves (such as sciatica) can cause severe pain. A 2014 study on sciatic nerve pain in rats demonstrated that the 660nm (red) wavelength offered neuropathic pain relief

A clinical trial of 50 elderly patients with osteoarthritis-related pain in both knees found a 50 percent improvement in pain after just 10 days of treatment.

Another study that also focused on osteoarthritis found that patients treated with red light in conjunction with glucosamine supplements and exercise found significant relief from knee pain.

A 2000 clinical trial of rheumatoid arthritis patients found that red light reduced pain by 70 percent, increased palm flexibility, and reduced morning stiffness.  

woman setting up red light device at home

Running Recovery at Home with Red Light 

Red light therapy is gentle, non-invasive, safe, simple to use, and highly effective. You can receive treatments from doctors or physical therapists, but since red light has so many uses outside of running recovery, you’ll find that investing in high-quality panel(s) for home use could be a wise decision. 

Success Tips

For optimal light photon absorption deep into the muscles and connective tissues, you’ll want a high-output LED device that delivers NIR light. For running recovery, you will get the best results with a combination of red and NIR light, which will stimulate every layer of tissue, and the nerves and circulatory system around the affected area.

Relax into a comfortable position where the LED device is approximately 6” from the area you want to treat. You can safely use red light therapy daily (if you wish) to stimulate recovery; use it the day after a workout to promote recovery; or several days a week for prevention.

You can also continue with ongoing maintenance treatments that will prime your body for exercise, build muscle, and help prevent soreness.

A Real-Life Case Study

Recently, a PlatinumLED user named Rachel reached out to us with a testimonial we’d like to share with you. She is a runner who had previously suffered from chronic pain; and although her results are spectacular, what’s most remarkable is her systematic approach to using red light therapy and her documentation of her results.

Rachel’s story involved chronic back pain that hadn’t responded to three years of physical therapy. She researched red light therapy, and chose PlatinumLED’s BIO 600. 

She took meticulous notes on her experience, and here are some highlights:

  • Her low back pain was completely gone after three days;
  • After one week, she went from running three miles with intense hip flexor pain to eight miles completely pain-free;
  • The knee pain she had felt while walking downstairs disappeared within a week:
  • She experienced better sleep, and more energy during the day;
  • By the third week, her muscles felt “bionic” without any post-run soreness;
  • She was able to push herself to improve her running times after three weeks of red light therapy.

Check out her blog post here.

Rachel reached out to us with a sequel written nine months after starting red light therapy. Some highlights include:

  • No more neck pain after her auto accident;
  • Her running continues to improve, including several PRs and an ultra trail marathon;
  • She has been injury-free, despite increasing her running mileage and intensity;
  • She continues to sleep well;
  • She has less overall soreness after running;
  • She has seen a dramatic decrease in cellulite;
  • Her family uses red light too, to boost their athletic performance.

Check out Rachel’s follow-up blog post.

Go For a Run!

If you’re a runner, red light therapy could be the answer you’re looking for. It can help you recover faster so you can enjoy running or a good workout without the soreness and injuries that plague so many people. 

And, red light therapy can enhance your overall well being. Curious about other ways you can use it? Check out the PlatinumLED blog to see how red light therapy can assist with weight loss, sleep disorders, neuropathy, back pain, hair loss, brain fog, and much more. 

And we’re always here to assist you! Please reach out if you have questions about which panel is best for you or any other questions you may have. We are passionate about helping you live a better, healthier life with the scientifically validated results of red light therapy.