Recovery | August 13, 2010
After months of tough training, you stepped up your game to a new ultra distance and conquered the beast. The last ten miles seemed like an eternity but you surprised yourself. You ran hard until your comfort zone was a distant memory. You pushed through the fatigue, stayed mentally tougher than you ever thought possible, and finished strong. You can relax now and bask in the glory. Time to be all carefree and let your hair blow in the breeze. Well, not really. The watchword for now and for the next several weeks should be: Caution.
Caution because the recovery from a very hard race can be tricky. Manage it correctly and you’ll be training again within a reasonable time and looking forward to improved performances. Manage it incorrectly and you could join the ranks of injured runners sitting on the sidelines wishing they had been more patient about ramping back up to full training mode. A hard run leaves you vulnerable. Your muscles are full of micro tears and are set up for more serious injury. The stress to your system has lowered your resistance to viruses and bacteria making you more susceptible to colds and flu. Your inner voice may be telling you, “Wow! Look how well I did. But I can do even better. I need to jump back into full training mode and train harder.” But you should tell your inner voice to take a hike. After a big race, rest and recovery should be your first and only order of business.
You can start making good choices as soon as you cross the finish line. Instead of collapsing on the ground in a heap, spend a few minutes walking around to give your body a chance to transition out of running mode. It’s an excellent time to walk out to your car and pick up some warm clothes so you won’t get chilled in your damp running outfit once you’ve cooled down. Keep drinking for awhile just like you were still in the race to avoid dehydration. Start resupplying your glycogen depleted muscles with food as soon as possible. Many ultras feature big food spreads or barbeques post race. Look for foods rich in carbohydrates, like bananas, oranges, bagels and yogurt, and rich in proteins, such as, hamburgers, soup, and stew. Salty foods are good as well to replace the sodium you sweated out during the race.
Before you load up and leave for home, take a moment to fix any blisters you might have. Have them cleaned, lanced, disinfected and dressed. It will save you sleep later if your blisters aren’t throbbing all night, although you may have to revisit the blisters later as they have a tendency to close up and refill with fluid. Your legs are going to be sore and they might get worse as time goes by. Soaking them in icy water or using an ice bag on really sore spots will help. Jumping into a hot bath right away will not. Chances are you’ll only prolong the pain.
Once you’ve dealt with the immediate aftermath of the race, your goals over the next few weeks should be to sleep well, to eat well, and to rest your muscles until they’ve had a chance to fully recover. This recovery period can be like a reverse taper: a few days of walking only, followed by short easy runs separated by lots of rest days, and only a very gradual build up of miles until you get back to your typical base mileage. The duration of the recovery period is usually keyed to the length of the ultra you completed. My own rule of thumb is about two weeks for a 50K, three weeks for a 50 mile, four weeks for a 100K, and six weeks for a 100 mile run. During the recovery, error on the side of rest and avoid any stressful workouts, such as, intervals, hill repeats, tempo runs and long runs. Substitute cross training work outs for runs.
The weeks post race are prime time for big injuries. Your muscles are in a relatively delicate state and are set up to be pulled or torn. You’ll probably experience a lot of soreness the first week after the race, and as one problem area resolves, another one may spring up to take its place. Don’t run at all until you’re free of significant pains. Take long walks instead. Extend your warm up and cool down periods before and after your runs. 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 are liable to go through some unusual mental states during your recovery as well. The euphoria of finishing a big race often gives way to a certain letdown. The busy training schedule that kept you so engaged before the race is over leaving something of a void in its place. It’s a good time to start thinking about your next challenge and using the experience from the just completed race to set some new goals, but don’t be tempted to start acting on those goals until you’re physically ready. Getting injured by pushing a hard workout too soon is a very common ultrarunner’s experience. Some runner’s can testify to a whole string of torn calves and pulled hamstrings that occurred while training after a big race, not during the intensive training before the race.
Think of your recovery time as a well earned interlude in your running career. After all, how often do your goals include such great things as eating well, sleeping in, skipping workouts if you feel like it, getting a massage, and just generally relaxing? Don’t fret over gaining a few pounds or losing a little bit of fitness. When you are fully recovered and ready to resume training, you’ll be in a position to train better than ever, shed the pounds, and reach a whole new level of fitness.