The Key Brain Chemical for Run Recovery (And 3 Ways To Increase It)

Runners are always looking for ways to accelerate their run recovery process.

Whether it’s ice baths, massage guns, or recovery supplements, there’s an entire industry built around the tools that can help you recover faster.

And run recovery is important: the faster you recover, the sooner you can resume training, increase the load on your muscles, and make bigger gains. It’s a compounding pattern in which recovery is the key time constraint.

If you’re not recovering properly, your performance is going to plateau – or even decline.

When in marathon training, for example, it’s essential that your busy training schedule balances enough time for recovery – else you can quickly find yourself fatigued, burned out, and injured.

It’s easy to see how people end up spending hundreds of dollars on the latest massage impact gun, or recovery supplement.

Related reading: How To Rest Like An Elite Athlete

But these recovery hacks and tools alone aren’t enough, as there’s one fundamental truth about the running recovery . . .

Your recovery process is largely governed by your brain.

The brain is in charge of the chemicals which signal to your body when it should be in a state of recovery – i.e. when it can focus on muscle repair, when it can sleep, when stress levels can be lowered.

Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic States

The nervous system has two main divisions, or states: sympathetic and parasympathetic (ref).

Our mind and body are constantly evaluating our environment for potential threats, and depending on how it perceives things it can put you in one of these two states.

The Sympathetic State: Fight or Flight

The sympathetic state is commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ state – it’s when a potential threat is perceived.

In this state, hormones are released to increase alertness, your heart rate increases, and blood is pumped to your muscles.

Your breathing becomes shallower, fresh oxygen is pumped to the brain, and your body releases a shot of glucose for a short-term energy hit.

You’re in an attack / defensive mode, not a relaxed mode.

The Parasympathetic State: Rest and Digest

The parasympathetic state is the other side of the spectrum – it’s known as the ‘rest and digest’ state, as it’s when your body perceives no threats and actively relaxes.

This relaxation of the nervous system allows your body to focus on other processes – the muscles relax, your heart rate slows, your intestinal and gland activity increase.

Your running recovery takes place when you’re in a parasympathetic state.

Your body is relaxed and your brain sends the signal to focus on muscular repair.

So the goal for runners in recovery is to maximize the amount of time spent in a parasympathetic state.

But how to do this?

The answer lies in the brain chemical dopamine.

Dopamine is a messenger chemical that signals to the rest of the body how to relax.

run recovery bench

How To Boost Dopamine Levels for Run Recovery

Here are some surprisingly simple ways to boost your dopamine – and accelerate your running recovery – which are often overlooked by athletes and regular runners:

Positive Social Interaction

Getting together with friends, family (or even better, some personal time with a partner) and people you enjoy being around will boost your dopamine.

Whether it’s hosting a dinner, going bowling, or to the cinema – whatever suits your group. Just limit your alcohol intake to 1 or 2 drinks, as that will inhibit your recovery.

After sleeping and eating right, positive social interaction is possibly the most important ingredient to having healthy dopamine levels and accelerating your run recovery..

Low-Intensity Walking

Not everything needs to be logged on your Garmin or Strava, right?

Some relaxed walking for 20 – 30 minutes helps induce that ‘rest and digest’ state; whether it’s going around the block or – much better – getting out into nature.

Exposure to Favorite Smells, Sights, Feelings

Whether this is Netflix and Chill, listening to your favorite album, or cuddling into a blanket – doing things that you find comforting and appealing really help juice those dopamine levels.

My favorite activity?

Cook a meal from scratch.

It’s so much more satisfying than eating some pre-prepared meal you’ve bought at the store.

When thinking about run recovery, don’t forget to focus on these low-hanging fruit.

It can be easy to get caught up with the latest recovery diets and hacks (here’s my recommendations on them), but if you’re ignoring your nervous system state, your efforts will largely be in vain.

The three big pillars of proper recovery are sleep, adequate food intake, and dopamine.

Get these right before you spend time and money on the latest recovery tools.

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of His work has been featured in Runner's World,, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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