Beware the Shadow: Post Race Recovery | July 14, 2015
The days and even weeks after completing your big all out target race can be hazardous to your running health. I like to think of a hard race effort as casting a shadow over the days that follow, the longer the race, the more lengthy the shadow. A 50K might cast a two week shadow, a 100 miler a month or even more. As long as you’re in the shadow, you should approach getting back to your full running schedule carefully.
First of all, the guiding principle during this shadow period is rest and recovery. After a peak effort, your muscles are less supple and resilient than normal, and they are full of micro tears, the natural result of pushing them hard in a race. Overdoing it now can result in worse tears and pulls. Also the stress to your system has lowered your resistance to viruses and bacteria making you more susceptible to colds and flu. Focus on eating and sleeping well in the week after your race, which are after all not such onerous goals to have to aspire to.
When you do begin running again, warm up and cool downs should be extended and done carefully. Be very gentle during your stretching routine. Give your muscles plenty of time to react to each stretch, use very little force to extend the muscles, and avoid any bouncing. You should cut your mileage way back and spend part of your normal running time just walking. Also you shouldn’t be running with any intensity, so tempo runs, intervals, and hill work are all essentially off the table until you’ve passed out of the shadow and are fully recovered.
Post race can be a tricky time mentally. The euphoria of finishing a big race can give way to a certain letdown. The busy training schedule that you had gotten used to is over leaving something of a void in its place. If your race went well, you might be encouraged and want to rush back to a bigger training effort so you can do even better. If your race went poorly, you might be anxious to start training again so you can redeem your performance. Either way you should hold your horses. Rushing back to intense training could lead to injury and that will really put you in the mental doghouse.
Try to enjoy and appreciate your recovery time. While you’re eating well, sleeping well, skipping workouts if you feel like it, and just generally relaxing, you can be setting new goals and planning for races in the future. It’s a good time to be dreaming of things to come.
When will you know that you’re out from under the shadow and ready to ramp the training back up? For me it’s when my easy workouts start feeling easy again. By then all traces of soreness and staleness are gone from my muscles, especially my quads. My eagerness to run has returned and I finish my runs feeling strong and fresh. Then I know it’s time to work on fulfilling those dreams.