Essential Sports Nutrition


Recovering from a half ironman distance triathlon

After Ironman 70.3 Florida, Karel and I were pretty sore. Like usual, we tossed and turned all night after the race and woke up exhausted. On Monday after the race, our almost 10-hour drive was rough. By Wednesday, we started to feel a little bit more normal and by the weekend, we felt mostly recovered. Oddly enough, we both felt like we recovered really quickly after the event, despite the normal post-race insomnia and soreness.

Being sore, exhausted and a little run-down after an endurance event is normal. And to be honest, I think many athletes enjoy the feeling that comes with racing in an endurance event as that post-race feeling signifies the effort that was needed to get from the start to the finish. It's kinda like you earned that feeling and you are proud of it. Thinking back to my very first half ironman 11 years ago, the feeling was unlike anything I had ever felt before. As the years went on and I had more half ironman distance triathlons under my belt, I could anticipate what my body would go through after a race. In other words, I became much more comfortable with understanding my body after an endurance triathlon event.

Although there is no one specific guideline, rule or method to speed up recovery after an endurance triathlon event, I feel it's important to walk you through some of the factors that contribute to recovery time after an endurance event, some of the mistakes that athletes make when recovering from an endurance event and a few strategies to help you get back to good health after an endurance event.

Why is recovery important? 
In training for an event, we welcome (and need) intentional and residual training stress for proper peaking and then we need to provide the body with a taper, in order to reduce the psychological and physiological stressors of consistent training in order to optimize performance and enhance previous training adaptations.
After a race, recovery is the time when the body returns to a normal state of health and mind, so that you can once again, consistently do high-quality training sessions with no residual fatigue from the last event.

Many athletes make the  mistake of training for one race at a time and not seeing the season as a progression of fitness from race to race. In other words, you can actually gain fitness from race to race, so long as you properly recover and continue with well-planned, structured training. Take too long of a break and you lose what you gained in previous training but come back to soon, and you remain stale, tired and fatigued with little ability to take fitness to that next level.

Factors affecting race recovery
How fast or effectively you recover from an event depends on many factors. For many athletes, a fixed training plan allows for no individualization that are relative to the factors affecting the athlete before, during and after the race. Even within one season, recovery time for one athlete may differ race to race, whereas some races require a longer recovery time than others.

Factors affecting race recovery include: 
  • Distance of the event
  • Athlete experience in the sport
  • Finishing time
  • Racing intensity relative to distance
  • Racing intensity relative to race priority/season planning
  • Race preparation and ability (or lack thereof) to remain consistent to training
  • Life stressors (family, travel, personal, work)
  • Age
  • Athletic ability/resilience
  • Length of taper
  • Health status leading up to the race
  • Nerves/anxiety before the race
  • Nutritional status leading up to the race
  • Fueling/hydration execution during the race
  • Pacing during the race
  • Difficulty/ease of race course
  • Environmental conditions on race day
  • Terrain management on race day
  • Type of course layout 
  • Setbacks on race day (ex. dehydration, cramping, bonking, nausea/fatigue)
  • Post race nutrition, including refueling and rehydration
  • Post race sleep habits
  • Post race stress
  • Post race travel
  • Timing of next race
  • Mental state post race
Although you can not control every factor listed above, it's important to consider that your post race recovery doesn't simply include what you do (or don't do) in the 24-72 hours after a race. Although completing an endurance event should bring you great satisfaction and confidence, prolonged activity (specifically in a race environment), plays a signficant role on your health and fitness status going into the race. And in addition to the muscle, tendon, bone and joint stress on the body during an endurance event, there is great stress on the heart, organs and brain. Therefore, recovery after an endurance event should not be taken lightly, nor should it be assumed that just because you complete a race that you will return to 100% health in x-days so that you can get back into training again. 

Common mistakes made by athletes post-race
The 48-72 hours after an endurance event, like a half ironman, are critical for optimizing recovery. Seeing that poor sleep, poor hydration and nutrition, extreme muscle soreness and travel will all impede recovery, athletes should be aware of the consequences of returning back to training too quickly. Considering that racing is a great stress on the human body, returning back to training too soon, without optimal recovery, may negatively affect metabolic and hormonal health, central nervous system functioning and mood, not to mention lingering fatigue. In other words, if you rush the recovery, you may dig yourself into a hole that you can't get out of for several weeks, if not months - or the rest of the season. 

Here are some common mistakes made by athletes post-race:
  • Using anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation 
  • Not executing a rehydration and refueling strategy in the 24 hours post race
  • Eating "too" healthy in the 24 hours post race
  • Eating "too" unhealthy in the 24 hours post race
  • Resuming "normal" training, despite being sleep deprived 
  • Resuming "normal" training, despite form being affected by soreness and niggles
  • Being too sedentary in the 3-4 days post race
  • Returning back into intense training because a race didn't go as planned (ex. didn't PR, podium, etc.)
  • Returning back into intense training because a race exceeded your expectations and you are itching to get back into training for the next race
  • Returning back to training because you don't know how to function in life without training
  • You hate resting/recovery
  • Following a fixed training plan and not listening to your body post race. 
Get your body back into good health after a half ironman distance triathlon

As a general guideline, I don't believe that any athlete can fully recover in less than 72 hours after an endurance event as glycogen needs to be resynthesized, hydration status needs to normalize, tissues, muscles and fibers need to heal and sleep patterns must return to normal before any type of training (for physical adaptations) is initiated. However, moving blood can certainly help to expedite the recovery process. Here are a few suggestions to help you recover from a half ironman distance triathlon. 
  • Give yourself 4-6 hours to rehydrate and refuel after the race. Understanding that it may take time for your appetite to return to normal, it's OK to eat what you crave but just be sure to eat and rehydrate with water and electrolytes. Not eating/drinking for 6-8 hours after a race is not good! 
  • Continue to focus on good refueling and rehydration methods for the next 48 hours with permission to indulge as you wish, within reason. By this time, you should be slowly returning to your normal eating habits, emphasizing real, wholesome food options.
  • Don't sit in the car or get on an airplane in the 4-8 hours after a race. Ideally, give yourself one extra night of rest before you are forced to sit for an extended period of time, so that you have an opportunity to move your body. 
  • Avoid getting a massage in the 48 hours post race. Rehydrate yourself and focus on daily mobility for the next 48-72 hours. Schedule a flushing massage at least 3+ days post race. 
  • Consume anti-inflammatory foods, like pineapple, fish and leafy greens in the 48 hours post race.
  • Wear compression post race. Graduated compression socks (and not calf sleeves) will help with blood flow. 
  • Use a safe and muscle relaxing cream (ex. we use Mg12) on any tight/sore muscles after a race. Avoid taking any anti-inflammatories in the 48 hours post race. 
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages in the 48 hours post race. Avoid caffeinated beverages in the 6-8  hours before bedtime. 
  • Try to get yourself into a good sleep routine as soon as you can. Do not allow yourself to return back into structured training until you can get a consistent 7-8 hours of sleep without waking up throughout the night. 
  • To hurry the recovery process, it's advised to do something non weight bearing and very light  on the body in the 24 hours after a race (if you can spin on your bike for 15 minutes in the hour after finishing a race, that would be recommended). Instead of recovering by being sedentary, try to move blood through swimming and bike riding. 
  • Give yourself 3 days to not follow a training plan but instead, exercise as it comes natural to you. When you have the time, go for a swim or spin but avoid setting an alarm or returning back to your structured training regime too quickly. There's plenty of time for that after you recover. 
  • Avoid running for at least 72 hours. Since running is very corrosive on the body, it's advised to keep your runs short (ex. 15-60 minutes) while including walk breaks and running every other or 3rd day for the next 5-7 days (ex. if your race is on Sunday, your first run should be no earlier than Wednesday or Thursday and then for the next 5-7 days, you should be running 15-60 minutes every other day or every 3 days). 
  • Understand that some body parts will recover faster than others but there is deep damage inside you that you can't feel. Generally speaking, you will not make any additional training adaptations for at least a week and for the less trained/fit, it may take at least 2 weeks to fully recover so that you can begin to train for physiological gains. On the flip side, an elite or trained athlete who is on the verge of overtraining or is racing very intensely, may require 2 weeks to feel fully "healed" after a race. 
  • Accept that age, previous fitness and racing execution will affect your recovery. Don't compare your recovery to another athlete, focus only on yourself. 
  • If you can't keep good form during a workout, stop immediately. Poor/inefficient form is a sign that your body is not yet recovered and you could risk further damage or injury. 
  • Have fun in the 5-7 days after your race. There will be a time to push hard again. Enjoy the lower intensity workouts and having a bit more free time, as you slowly ease back into structured training.