Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

NSAIDs and Foam Rollers: Active Recovery or a Delay in Progress?

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Aside from looking pretty ridiculous, are these guys helping their legs recover, or simply enduring an act of needless torture?

Last week I ran barefoot out at Carlsbad Beach for the first time, and running through the waves was so much fun that I may have gone a little bit overboard. I stretched when I was finished, but by later on that night my calves were sore and hard as rocks. Hey, it happens sometimes…especially if you run in little to no shoe. So I popped a couple Advil to keep the inflammation at bay and went to bed.

The next day my legs felt a little better, but I was still overwhelmed with guilt because I couldn’t find time to use my foam roller on them. So I threw on my blue calf sleeves for a quick run with some friends that morning, hoping that the compression would encourage blood flow to my torn-up calf muscles. Later on that next night I did find the time to sit down and roll them out – and it was absolute effing torture.

“It’s a good pain,” says just about every person who has ever used a foam roller. I pretend to agree and carry on the message, but secretly I hate it. I still do it all, anyway…as a sort of guilt-induced process toward progress. I roll my legs, I stretch, I wear calf sleeves, douse myself in ice and sometimes even take NSAIDs, all because I have been taught that these are the steps I should take to avoid injury, aid muscular recovery and become a stronger runner.

But do I really need to assist my after-run recovery? Why, exactly, can’t my body do it just fine all on its own? What did all the runners throughout history do before they discovered foam rollers?

Do our muscles actually benefit from all this help, or have we been adding unnecessary steps to the end of our workouts, and possibly even stunting our own progress with it?

I recently read this thought-provoking article by Kyle Krantz, Social Media Coordinator of Skora Running, called “Artificial Recovery.” In it, he talks about just that: perhaps, using artificial means to speed up our bodies’ recovery time after exertion is actually holding us back.

If you reduce the duration of the recovery period, could you be reducing the adaption as well?

And it really got me wondering whether Kyle is really on to something here. If you’re expressly trying to reduce the amount of time your legs have to adapt to a new or difficult exercise, then are they even getting the full effect of the exercise? Or are you just working out all the kinks for your muscles and never letting them figure it out on their own? The more I think about it the more it sounds kind of like paying the rent for your 27-year old child’s apartment and then wondering why their credit card balances are still so high. Students never learn what you fail to teach.

What if, like the softie parent, we are aiding a slow learning process for our muscles by artificially assisting their recovery, and thus, their adaptive learning? Would they be better off if we gave them some “tough love” by relying less on all those chemicals and gimmicky products? Possibly.

Based on this theory, I would be able to delete a lot of my runner’s guilt from all those ice baths I didn’t take, and all those days last year that my foot hurt and I failed to make a date with my foam roller. Perhaps not having done those things helped more than I ever realized.

Moreover, lessening our dependence on artificial means to recovery might help us rely more on all the natural ways. Things that people never talk about, like getting enough sleep or utilizing proper hydration and nutrition. Think about it: have you ever been complaining to a friend about your sore quads after a hard run and heard her say “Take my advice: go home, eat some kale and then get to bed early.”? Yeah, none of that here, either.

That said, I still believe there is a proper time and place to utilize the artificial solutions: when recovery needs are above and beyond the usual after-workout soreness, i.e. when there is injury involved. Last year I injured the tendons on my left foot and it took months to heal. Now, ever so often I (stupidly) over-do it and have to spend a few days on the sidelines to circumvent re-injury. In that case I might pop a few NSAIDs before bed and roll out all the muscle tightness that caused the sore foot chain reaction. But perhaps now, in addition to that, I will always make an effort to consume more lean proteins and vegetables, drink plenty of water and get some extra sleep. I’m not entirely sure what part of that habit will be the magic bullet (or if there even is one), but it can’t hurt.

So, next time you don’t have twenty minutes to suffer through an ice bath or forget to wear your compression socks to a race, skip the guilty feelings. Your legs just might benefit from the tough love.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you use a lot of artificial recovery methods, or just let your body work it out naturally?

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7 thoughts on “NSAIDs and Foam Rollers: Active Recovery or a Delay in Progress?

  1. Great post!! There is research that indicates that NSAIDS actually delay and prolong the healing of achilles tendonapathy. So even tho my MD prescribed heavy NSAIDS I never filled the script. I err on the no drug side. In the end it is all about listening to your body . I hardly think caveman runners rolled their legs or too NSAIDS. Your body is built to heal and adapt and warn you of injury.Great post!!

  2. Thanks for sharing my post at the SKORA blog! Great post yourself 🙂

  3. I totally agree with the nutrition benefits. You are exactly right in stating that the body is built to heal, and it may heal better or faster without all the gadgets involved today.
    Great post! Definitely got me thinking!

  4. I never do any of this. I will only take a pain killer if something is broken or falling off. It’s not a tough guy thing, for me, I just don’t want to hurt myself worse by masking something. I never even stretch.

    Actually, the only time I do stretch or use a stick (I don’t do a foam roller) is when I have a compressed recovery time, like during a relay run where I have another run in hours.

    This guy, Dr Gangemi, is a little over the top sometimes, but he makes a lot of sense. And he’s very anti-nsaids, anti-stretching, etc… In fact, he thinks NSAIDs should be prescription only because of the damage they can do. Buy his shirt: http://sock-doc.com/only-bozos-stretch-shirt/ Check out his website.

    He’s been on Trail Runner Nation podcast several times and is super informative about these areas if you want to hear more.

  5. Hi Trisha – Great post, I was sitting here with a sore calf after rolling it the day before convinced that I was making it worse. I reckon I just need to heal. You are my post of the week at http://www.barefootbeginner.com/2012/09/28/pick-of-the-posts-no-11-the-best-5-barefoot-posts-to-see-you-through-the-weekend-are/
    Chris

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