Written by: Dr. Brianna-Grace Dowdall – Naturopathic Doctor at The Runner’s Academy
This time of year brings with it a lull in racing for most of us. If you want in on some secrets to increase your chances of having a successful strong race season next year, this post is for you!
You’ve likely heard that running and physical activity in general puts the body through immense amounts of stress, both at the macro and micro levels. So with the race season dying down (for the majority of us), this is the perfect time of year to change your focus from high performance racing to recovery and rebuilding for next year’s race season. In Traditional Chinese Medicine this means transitioning from yang: high energy, lots of movement, the season of summer, to more yin: nourishment, rest, the season of winter.
As a naturopathic doctor, I treat patients holistically. This means treating each person as a whole and not focusing on just one individual aspect of health. Naturopathic doctors take into account your mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. They ask about your health history from head to toe. Depending on your own unique state of health and wellbeing, your recovery and rebuilding will likely look a little different from another runner’s experience of health. However, there are a few general areas that runners in particular often have some room for improvement when it comes to rebuilding and recovery. Here are some brief introductions to a few of the common aspects of health runners typically need special nurturing after a busy race season.
It’s no secret that sleep is an extremely key determinant of our health. When we sleep a number of important processes occur. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep in many different kinds of athletes (runners included) actually decreases their ability to recover properly from physical activity and it’s detrimental to performance too. Specifically, research has shown that sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in resting heart rate and negative changes in the hormones ghrelin, leptin and growth hormone, all which control hunger and recovery processes. It causes decreased immune function, negatively affects mood with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, increases oxygen consumption and much more.
When assessing sleep, we want to make sure that you are getting enough hours of good quality sleep (quality and quantity are important here!). Generally, I recommend runners try to aim for 8-9 hours of sleep a night to ensure optimal recovery and to allow for all of the above processes to occur properly. Another important factor is sleep latency, which means how long it takes for you to fall asleep. Sleep latency can give us insight into stress and anxiety and cortisol levels (one of our big stress hormones, more on this later). In terms of sleep quality, we want you to wake feeling rested. If you are waking up throughout the night for example, this again could give us a clue that your cortisol levels might be sub-optimal (among other reasons). Finally, we also want to rule out any serious causes of poor sleep such as (but not limited to) sleep apnea, insomnia, congestive heart failure or certain medications that interfere with sleep. Thankfully, naturopathic doctors have several tools that can help improve sleep quality, the number of hours you are asleep and the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep. Here are some tips for improving your sleep that you can implement right away:
- Bedroom temperature: your bedroom should be a few degrees cooler than the rest of your house
- Stimuli before bed: try to remove any screens from your bedroom including computers, laptops, televisions and cell phones. Do your best to stop screen time (the amount of time looking at devices with screens) at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. There’s also certain settings you can change on your phone and computer to change the colour of the light at a certain time of night. Additionally there are blue light glasses available which also block out the type of light that often messes up our circadian rythmn
- Keep a consistent time for when you go to bed and when you wake up
- Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and comfortable
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime
- Try implementing a relaxing activity before bed such as stretching, yoga or mindfulness/meditation
Other ways naturopathic doctors might help you achieve better sleep is by assessing circadian rhythm (especially important for runners who are shift workers or those who travel a lot either for work, races or for leisure), using botanical or natural supplements to help reduce anxiety and stress before bed (but ultimately using other interventions to get to the root cause of the stress and anxiety).
There are a number of nutrients that runners are often deficient in. These include iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and magnesium to name a few. These deficiencies can result from the increased demand running puts on the body, individual dietary habits of runners and/or digestive conditions.
Iron (ferritin), vitamin B12 and vitamin D levels are often measured routinely through blood tests. Depending on each runner’s individual levels of these nutrients, levels can be brought up through diet or supplementation when necessary. Zinc, magnesium and calcium levels are not routinely tested but can be increased through diet and/or supplements as well. Please see a licensed health practitioner to guide supplementation of any of these nutrients since many of them have upper limits and can cause negative health effects if doses are too high.For example, too much iron can actually be toxic. So be safe and get help from a trusted and licensed healthcare provider for help with nutrient supplementation.
Each nutrient has its own importance in runner’s health. In short, iron and vitamin B12 are key in our oxygen transport and feeling of overall energy. Iron status is especially important in female runners and B12 is only obtainable through animal sources of food. Thus, vitamin B12 has a tendency to be low in vegan and vegetarians who do not supplement appropriately. Calcium and vitamin D are important in the health of our bones. Vitamin D is also important for our immune system function. Zinc plays a key role in our immunity and healing processes (and much more). Finally, magnesium is involved in our muscle contraction and relaxation, healthy bones, cardiovascular health and is used as a co-factor in over 300 reactions in the body. It is crucial to have adequate levels of all of these nutrients during peak training, race season and offseason too.
Here are some food sources of each of the nutrients listed above so that you can incorporate these foods into your diet to ensure adequate levels now:
- Iron – iron is found in meat, spinach, tofu, lentils, blackstrap molasses and much more
- Vitamin B12 – is found in meat, eggs, fortified non-animal sourced products such as milk alternatives (check nutrition facts on label to see if it is fortified with vitamin B12)
- Vitamin D – is obtained through sunlight contact with the skin (moreso in the summer months); this vitamin is especially important to supplement during the darker months. It can be found in some meat sources, fortified products and egg yolks
- Calcium – is found naturally in collard greens, spinach, chia seeds, milk, fortified milk alternatives, tahini
- Zinc – can be found in some meat products, pumpkin seeds and is very high in oysters
- Magnesium – is high in spinach, quinoa, peas, brazil nuts and salmon
As you can see, eating a well-balanced diet with lots of variety is key to ensuring optimal levels of these nutrients. Two key rules I suggest to patients are “eat the rainbow” (so eat foods of varying colours on a regular basis) and anything that you do eat, eat it in moderation (too much of anything is often not good for you). And seek guidance from a trusted licensed practitioner to make sure you are getting sufficient nutrients if you have any dietary restrictions, allergies or intolerances.
This is a big, multi-faceted topic that I could go into great detail about. For the purpose of this post I will keep it brief and to the point but keep an eye out for a more detailed post on stress in the future. Runners commonly experience high levels of both physical and psychological stress. The stress response is a normal and necessary physiological process to ensure our body adapts and functions properly in times of acute stress. Chronic stress, however, can cause a multitude of negative effects including impacts on thyroid health, bone mass, blood sugar levels, metabolic rate, inflammation and much more due to the effects of our stress hormone, cortisol.
All runners experience some level of stress (all people do for that matter!). Naturopathic doctors are able to help counteract some of the negative impacts of chronic stress depending on the amount of stress you have endured or are currently going through. Strategies that might be used to help improve your experience of stress might include using specific nutrients that are used by the adrenal glands (2 glands that live on top of the kidneys) or researched medicinal botanical medicines called adaptogens that help support the health of our adrenal glands and our physiological response to stress. Some adaptogenic herbs that are particularly well researched and helpful for endurance athletes are Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus senticosus), ashwagandha (withania somnifera) and rhodiola (rhodiola rosea). In addition to diet and botanical medicine, doing deep breathing exercises and engaging in mindfulness or meditation practices can also help decrease our perception of and our body’s reaction to stress. Here are some ideas that you can start implementing today to help decrease your physical and mental stress:
- Incorporating relaxing stretching and breathing exercises into your training program. There are a ton of free apps, websites or Youtube videos that you can use such as Calm (app), Headspace (app) and Doyogawithme.com to name a few; The Runner’s Academy Instagram account also has tons of great videos showing running specific stretches
- Vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium are all involved in the adrenal gland processes. Eat foods that are high in these nutrients, such as papaya, leafy greens and the foods listed above for magnesium, and by eating the rainbow and including a wide variety of foods in your diet
- Try a gratitude journal: writing out 3 things you are grateful for each day either when you wake up, before bed or whenever is convenient for you to engage in mindfulness
Stress is a normal part of life and it is inevitable that everyone, whether you’re a runner or not, will experience varying levels of stress throughout their life. This is why it is integral to have coping mechanisms in place and to increase nutritional and botanical support (again, use with guidance from a licensed health care provider with training in herbal medicine; although herbs are “natural” they can often interact with medications and have side effects as well) to your adrenal glands to help with recovery, rebuilding and performance before the busy race season starts up again.
Here is a link to a great picture showing some of the physical effects of stress on the body: https://lachina.com/blog/effects-stress-body/
Perhaps you are suffering from post-race season aches, pains or even a serious injury. Although you might seek out manual therapists for help in this area such as a chiropractor, physiotherapist or registered massage therapist to name a few, naturopathic doctors can help too! There are many reasons runners can become injured including improper mechanics, tight muscles, and over-training. Once injured though, certain foods and nutritional supplements can help in the healing process and decrease pain. These include things like natural anti-inflammatories such as omega 3 fatty acids (naturally found in fish such as anchovies and salmon) and curcumin (the active component in the spice turmeric). Several botanicals help to naturally reduce pain (boswelia, ginger, topical castor oil packs and capsaicin). Optimal protein intake can also help in recovery from injury in runners. I recommend 1.6g/kg/d for runners. Research shows anything beyond this does not help improve muscle strength, size or recovery. Physical therapies can help in recovery and pain reduction including acupuncture, electro-acupuncture and cupping, all of which naturopathic doctors are trained to do as well. Address those aches and pains now before they have the chance to become a persistant nagging issue down the road.
All of the topics covered in this post address rebuilding specific to runners for next years racing season. Creating an individualized routine during the offseason that focuses on adequate good quality sleep, a balanced diet rich in a variety of nutrients, psychological and physical stress reduction and healthy coping mechanisms and injury recovery from the inside out will set you up for a successful race season next year. Being a lifelong runner myself I know it can be hard, but I challenge you to embrace the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine this winter and “get your yin on” to ensure you’re headed into next year’s race season stronger than ever before!
**Disclaimer: always consult your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor before starting any nutritional or botanical supplements.
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Malhotra, MD, R. (2017). Sleep, Recovery, and Performance in Sports. Neurol Clin.
Sollie, O., Jeppesen, P., Tangen, D., Jernerén, F., Nellemann, B., Valsdottir, D., Madsen, K., Turner, C., Refsum, H., Skålhegg, B., Ivy, J. and Jensen, J. (2018). Protein intake in the early recovery period after exhaustive exercise improves performance the following day. Journal of Applied Physiology.