It’s no secret that recovery matters. Whether you’re an ice-bath fanatic, a compression-sock connoisseur or an old-school stretcher, we all follow some sort of post-run protocol. The real gains occur in the aftermath, after all, when our bodies are broken down and begging for restoration.
For most runners, the scripts we follow don’t vary much from season to season, or even from year to year. We learn a few techniques, we pick our favorites and those tend to fill the repertoire until a new trend springs up. Take recent fads like cold-tank cryotherapy, the healing powers of beet juice, or flotation therapy, for example.
But there’s something to be said for variation—in recovery as in running itself. We don’t do the same workouts every day, so why not mix up our recovery habits, too? Inspired by the runners, triathletes and coaches I met while traveling internationally for a year (read more about it in Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe), I offer you five elements to consider adding to your recovery wheelhouse.
Soak It Up in a Japanese Onsen
There’s a beautiful tradition in Japan that I embraced during my four-week visit. Onsen are traditional bathing houses, constructed around natural hot springs, where individuals of all ages go to wind down. For each guest, the process begins with a thorough scrubbing down with warm water and soap and continues in a room full of warm water pools, each one offering a different feel due to its temperature, circulation and mineral content.
While the public bathing concept may be foreign to many Westerners, Japanese researchers have been documenting the possible health benefits of onsen since the early 1700s. These benefits can include enhanced recovery from injury and possible improvement in conditions ranging from hypertension and rheumatism to skin disease and stress. I ended several runs at an onsen, many of which also serve nourishing meals and some of which offer fish therapy—entailing tiny fish nibbling on the soles of your feet and in between your toes—and I felt like I’d just taken the nap of a lifetime each time I emerged.
Brunch like an Australian
They may never swap their Vegemite for peanut butter, but Australians have the whole brunch ritual down. The Melbourne runners I trained and mingled with for a month expertly guided me through their thriving late-morning nosh and coffee scene and shed new light on the restorative powers of a leisurely post-run meal with friends.
Whether over crumbly pastries and flat whites or loaded salads and Insta-worthy toast—think thick slabs of sourdough topped with roasted pumpkin and arugula, carrot hummus and goat cheese, or poached eggs and avocado—decompressing came easily. Post-activity refueling is hardly a new concept, but the Australian emphasis on doing so socially is a twist worth considering. The idea of socialization as a recovery tool hasn’t gone mainstream yet, but some notable runners and researchers suggest that it should.
Sweat it Out in a Finnish Sauna
Saunas are integral to Finnish society—the tradition dates back thousands of years, and 99 percent of Finns hop in at least one a week. First used by early settlers who burrowed into the ground, heated up stones and tossed water onto them to create a soothing vapor, saunas have since served as cleansing or recuperation dens for everyone from field workers to women in childbirth or even the recently deceased.
Studies say the myriad potential health benefits of saunas include improved circulation, detoxification, and pain and stress relief. When possible, Finnish people complement stints in a sauna with refreshing plunges in a cold lake, a process that’s repeated again and again. Before my visit, I was familiar with so-called contrasting—alternating dips in cold and hot tubs to soothe achy muscles—but during my month in Finland, the sauna capital of the world, I learned that the Finns take the notion to new heights.
My host family in the city of Turku had a bathing and sauna area the size of a bedroom in their house, and even the tiny cottage I spent a holiday weekend in had a sizable sauna (a good indication of priorities, as an indoor restroom didn’t even make the cut). Like onsen in Japan, I ended several runs in a sauna, and I felt noticeably more fresh-minded and relaxed for hours after. There’s a Finnish saying that “the sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy,” and I suspect it won’t be long before the rest of the world agrees.
Grab a Power Nap like the East Africans
Though athletes everywhere value naps to some degree, there’s one region from which I met the nappers of all nappers: East Africa, home to an incredible concentration of the world’s best long-distance runners. The Kenyan runners I spent time with in London and the Ethiopians I trained with for two months divide their days between two extremes: intense training and no-nonsense rest.
It wasn’t uncommon to find the elite runners who could afford to do so lying prone for the majority of their non-running hours, doing little besides sleeping, chatting or sipping freshly-brewed coffee or tea. As a chronic overachiever, constantly filling my to-do list and trying to cram more into each day than I can realistically do in a week, that dichotomy impacted me. I’ll probably never be able to lounge around for an entire day, but I certainly can afford to slide further toward the East African end of the spectrum. As one journalist put it, “For Kenyan runners, rest is a serious business.” If I’m to compete with the best of them, I need to stop treating naps as a pastime.
Hone in on Hygge with the Swedes
A current buzzword in the U.S., hygge (pronounced hue-guh) is a Scandinavian concept that means, as The New Yorker put it, “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” When I visited Sweden, Denmark and Finland, I was swept up in the hygge all around me: thick blankets for wrapping up in while dining outside, trendy coffee shops offering a midday recharge and crackling fireplaces as settings for unrushed chats with friends.
On the surface, the concept has nothing to do with athletics. Yet when implemented—especially following hard workouts and in the middle of big training weeks—I found hygge to be the perfect mindset for recovery. Whether it’s a mug of hot chocolate, a soft robe, a stack of thin pancakes or a lavender-scented candle, I encourage you to identify the things that put you in a cozy state of mind and incorporate them into your post-workout routine.