Recovery Methods for Endurance Athletes

In the last decade more and more athletes, and knowledgeable coaches have been focusing on recovery from their workouts in order to speed one’s recovery from the immediately preceding workout, achieve the full benefit of the workout during the resistance phase of the general adaptation syndrome (you get stronger), and speed recovery so that one can have a high quality subsequent workout (be it the second workout of the day or the subsequent workout a day or two later). Much of the attention on recovery has been brought on due to the increased number of recovery drinks made available this past decade, as well as other potential recovery products (e.g. electrostimulation and compression shorts and socks).

The most sought after answer and question that has been asked multiple times is what an athlete can do to speed recovery and what my thoughts are regarding the previously mentioned recovery products that are out there. With many thoughts on many products out there, including the pros and cons and how to keep money in ones pocket to pay for products that truly make a difference.

Recovery Drinks

There are a plethora of recovery drinks on the market right now. These recovery drinks include R4, Recoverite, Cytomax Recovery, to name a few. Recently, some have started to question the notion of spending R400 on a container of recovery drink. This makes sense considering humans have been competing for decades without these chemical conglomerates for recovery. The question has increasingly been asked, “is there a way to recover using a normal dietary product?”

A recent study (1) by Indiana University, has confirmed that chocolate milk is an effective recovery drink. The study involved trained cyclists performing an endurance trial where the participants drank chocolate milk, fluid replacement, or a carbohydrate replacement drink immediately after the workout. Four hours post trial, the participants rode their bikes at 70% VO2max to exhaustion and total time to exhaustion and total work (which includes power output as a part of the equation) was recorded. The cyclists who consumed chocolate milk for the recovery drink outperformed the cyclists that consumed the carbohydrate replacement drink in this study.

Most recovery drinks that are on the market is that you are paying for an extremely high quantity of fat-soluble vitamins (i.e. Vitamin E). A study by Leonard et al. (2) compared the bioavailability of Vitamin E (d (9)-alpha-tocopheryl acetate) when consumed as part of a cereal (30 IU and 400 IU Vitamin E fortified cereal served with fat-free milk) compared to a 400-IU capsule taken alone, as well as a 400-IU Vitamin E capsule taken with a Vitamin E deficient cereal. The results were that plasma Vitamin E concentrations were dependant on both the dose and route of administration. The blood plasma concentrations of Vitamin E (aka the bioavailability of Vitamin E) were significantly lower in response to the 400-IU capsule taken alone compared to the fortified cereals. The cereal fortified with the 400-IU of Vitamin E yielded the highest plasma volumes of vitamin E. The trial where subjects consumed the 400-IU capsule of Vitamin E with the non-fortified cereal yielded highly variable results. What is interesting about this last point, where the Vitamin E bioavailability was highly variable following consumption of the capsule, is the participants consumed the vitamin E capsule with the cereal that contains exactly the same amount of fat as Endurox R4. These results suggest that unless Vitamin E capsules are consumed with a meal containing sufficient fat, one may not benefit from Vitamin E supplementation. A later study by the same research group (3) showed bioavailability of Vitamin E supplemented apples can be increased by consuming the apples with a meal that contains fat. Eating the fortified apples with 2.4 grams or 11 grams of fat doubled and tripled the Vitamin E bioavailability, respectively, compared to eating the fortified apples alone. There is a published study that has examined the effect of Vitamin E supplementation on reducing exercise-induced oxidative damage (the type of damage that Vitamin E is supposed to reduce in recovery drinks (4). The study did find the antioxidant drink did reduce exercise-induced oxidative damage following a half-marathon race however 1) the participants consumed the antioxidant drink for 30 consecutive days prior to the race and 2) the antioxidant drink contained moderate levels of both Vitamin C and Vitamin E. Dr. Maret Traber (the coauthor of many of these vitamin E research projects), was kind enough to discuss with me the topic of Vitamin E consumption and its possible role in recovery. Her recommendation is that it is smarter to take Vitamin E as a supplement with dinner containing fat on a daily basis. Furthermore good nutrition before a training session, as well as staying adequately hydrated, are more important than a post-workout commercial recovery drink.

One word of caution is warranted here. Although the bioavailability of Vitamin E (the amount that actually reaches the bloodstream to have an affect) in a recovery drink is likely very low, by no means do I propose an individual consume more than 400 IU per day as a supplement. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it can accumulate in the body and lead to serious side effects.


There have been numerous studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of electro stimulation in promoting recovery of athletes (5, 6); however these studies have used measures of anaerobic performance to evaluate electrostimulation effectiveness. For example in the most recent study by Tessitore (6) evaluating the effectiveness of electro stimulation for recovery, the authors of that article looked at various recovery methods on futsal players (indoor soccer players) using anaerobic performance measurements (e.g. jump tests and 10 meter sprint tests), as well as stress hormones, rating of perceived exertion, and muscle pain. The electrostimulation did appear to help recovery. However, one needs to keep in mind there is a difference in the bioenergetics used in soccer compared to the bioenergetics used in triathlon ((soccer uses anaerobic forms of energy production (phosphocreatine system and fast glycolysis) much more than triathlon, which is 99+% aerobic (slow glycolysis and beta-oxidation)). Furthermore, the performance test markers were completely anaerobic (they measured the phosphagen energy system, which is largely irrelevant in triathlon performance). Martin, et al (7) investigated whether electromyostimulation would improve recovery following eccentric-contraction induced injury (this was accomplished by 15 X 1 minute bouts of one legged downhill running on a treadmill set to 7 km/hr at 12% decline). The authors compared electromyostimulation to light recovery activity (running at 50% VO2max) and passive recovery on the contractile properties of muscle to evaluate the recovery effectiveness. There was no significant difference in effectiveness between recovery methods.

At this time, the evidence towards the use of electrostimulation for recovery from endurance training sessions is currently lacking and therefore recommending any of these products to an endurance athletes would not be wise. There is growing anecdotal evidence, but until there is some evidence of efficacy, one cannot justifiably recommend these products. Please see reference 8 for a review.

Compression Gear

The use of compression gear is growing, be it for use during races to gain a competitive edge or the idea that compression gear speeds recovery, the idea of which is likely due to commercial promotion (8). Compression shorts may reduce energy expenditure during running  (9); however, the effect of compression for recovery is not clear. There is mixed scientific research that has shown compression gear improves recovery. A study by Ali, et al (10) suggests that wearing compression stockings during exercise may improve recovery. In this study it was found that wearing compression socks during a 10 km fast-paced road run reduced delayed onset muscle soreness following the run. More recently French, et al (11) has shown compression garments do not improve recovery when worn post-exercise. In the study by French et al (11) participants performed 6 X 10 smith squats using a load of 100% body mass and then immediately performed an eccentric squat at their 1 repetition max squat weight (the participant only lowered the weight, which is the type of movement that causes the most muscle damage).  The compression garment, Skins, did not enhance recovery following this test set. Enhanced recovery has been found using compression garments for rugby players (12) when physiological markers are measured for muscle damage, suggesting the benefit of compression wraps. Caution is warranted as rugby players use physiological energy systems that are different than triathletes. Furthermore, the trauma associated with rugby games is typically much higher than that experienced during an endurance event, such as a triathlon. To conclude it is not clear if compression gear is effective in improving recovery, some studies have shown that compression gear does not improve recovery (11, 13), while other research suggests it may be beneficial (10,12).


At this point athletes spending money on electrostimulation would be a waste of hard earned cash. There is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that electrostimulation of muscles improves recovery in anaerobic events; however, there is no scientific research supporting the efficacy of electrostimulation in promoting enhanced recovery from an aerobic training session. As for compression gear, there is growing, albeit limited evidence that compression gear improves recovery. The scientific evidence for compression gear post-workout recovery is extremely limited; however used during a workout, wearing compression gear may improve performance and recovery.

So what is recommend for recovery? Immediately after an intense workout (intensity ? threshold and/or volume ? one hour in length), consume a single serving of chocolate milk (or if you choose, a commercially available recovery drink), and then follow this up with an ice bath, which has been shown to improve recovery (11). further from that it is recommended a full meal within an hour of the workout to insure that glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) is fully replenished. Unfortunately many athletes ignore the importance of recovering from workouts by ignoring this basic advice and 1) their subsequent workout suffers and 2) their overall performance improvement suffers. Furthermore, athletes need to stay focused on good nutrition (which as Dr. Traber states should include a multivitamin containing Vitamin E with a fat containing dinner and staying adequately hydrated). A poor diet and inadequate dehydration are two of the most common mistakes I witness with athletes. Finally, the two important aspects of recovery that endurance athletes need to pay attention to are recovery days and sleep. There is no point in training if one does not get adequate sleep and the athlete is fatigued during workouts. One has to receive adequate rest to allow the hormones of the body to do their work in order to achieve strength gains. Furthermore one has to have adequate rest to insure they are recovered so that subsequent workouts are high quality workouts.


1. Karp JR, Johnston JD, Tecklenburg S, Mickleborough TD, Fly AD, Stager JM. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(1):78-91.

2. Leonard SW, Good CK, Gugger ET, Traber MG. Vitamin E bioavailability from fortified breakfast cereal is greater than that from encapsulated supplements. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(1):86-92.

3. Bruno RS, Leonard SW, Park SI, Zhao Y, Traber MG. Human vitamin E requirements assessed with the use of apples fortified with deuterium-labeled alpha-tocopheryl acetate. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(2):299-304.

4. Sureda A, Tauler P, Aguiló A, Cases N, Llompart I, Tur JA, Pons A. Influence of an antioxidant vitamin-enriched drink on pre- and post-exercise lymphocyte antioxidant system. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(3):233-40.

5. Tessitore A, Meeusen R, Pagano R, Benvenuti C, Tiberi M, Capranica L. Effectiveness of active versus passive recovery strategies after futsal games. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(5):1402-12.

6. Tessitore A, Meeusen R, Cortis C, Capranica L. Effects of different recovery interventions on anaerobic performances following preseason soccer training. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(3):745-50.

7. Martin V, Millet GY, Lattier G, Perrod L. Effects of recovery modes after knee extensor muscles eccentric contractions.Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(11):1907-15.

8. Barnett A. Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help? Sports Med. 2006;36(9):781-96.

9. Bringard A, Perrey S, Belluye N. Aerobic energy cost and sensation responses during submaximal running exercise–positive effects of wearing compression tights. Int J Sports Med. 2006;27(5):373-8.

10. Ali A, Caine MP, Snow BG. Graduated compression stockings: physiological and perceptual responses during and after exercise. J Sports Sci. 2007;25(4):413-9.

11. French DN, Thompson KG, Garland SW, Barnes CA, Portas MD, Hood PE, Wilkes G. The effects of contrast bathing and compression therapy on muscular performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(7):1297-306.

12. Gill ND, Beaven CM, Cook C. Effectiveness of post-match recovery strategies in rugby players. Br J Sports Med.2006;40(3):260-3.

13. Berry MJ, Bailey SP, Simpkins LS, TeWinkle JA. The effects of elastic tights on the post-exercise response. Can J Sport Sci. 1990;15(4):244-8.

14. Lane KN, Wenger HA. Effect of selected recovery conditions on performance of repeated bouts of intermittent cycling separated by 24 hours. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18(4):855-60.

I wish to acknowledge Dr. Maret Taber for her contributions to this article. Dr. Traber is a professor of nutrition at Oregon State University and principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute.



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