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How to bounce back from a long-distance race

In just a few weeks, Karel and I will be traveling to St George to race IM 70.3 St. George for the 2nd year in a row. Unlike IM 70.3 FL, this race will be slower in time as it comes with a lot of terrain and weather challenges. We enjoy challenging and beautiful courses and this one doesn't disappoint. 

Although there is no one specific guideline, rule or method to speed the recovery after an endurance triathlon event, I feel it's important to walk you through some of the factors that contribute to your 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 (physically and mentally), 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. Additionally, you may find that the more you race, the more experience you bring to the next race, allowing you to take smarter risks and dig a little deeper. Take too long of a break between races and you lose what you gained in previous training/racing. But rush back into training and racing too soon and you be risk injury, sickness or becoming stale, tired and fatigued.

Factors affecting your race recovery
How fast or effectively you recover from an event depends on many factors. While it's good to have a plan for recovery after your race, doing too much (or not enough) may compromise your recovery. Even within one season, recovery time for one athlete may differ race to race, whereas some races require a longer recovery time than others.
  • Distance of the event
  • Athlete experience/fitness level/resiliency 
  • Finishing time (time on the course)
  • 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
Be mindful of the muscle, tendon, bone, joint, heart, organ and brain stress during an endurance event. Regardless of how well or not well your race went, respect your individual recovery process. 

Common mistakes made by athletes post-race
The 72 hours after an endurance event are crucial optimizing recovery. Poor sleep, dehydration, muscle and liver glycogen depletion, mental exhaustion and extreme muscle soreness/tissue damage along with any travel stressors will all affect recovery. Bouncing back too soon 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. However, doing nothing may be just as bad as doing too much for active recovery can help speed up the recovery process. 

Avoid the following post race: 
  • Using anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation 
  • Not executing a rehydration and refueling strategy in the 48 hours post race
  • Not eating in the 12 hours post race
  • Resuming "normal" training, despite being sleep deprived 
  • Being too sedentary in the week after your race. 
  • Rushinng back into intense training because a race didn't go as planned (ex. didn't PR, podium, etc.)
  • Rushing back into intense training because you feel you need to prove something at your next race.
  • Rushing back to training because you don't know how to function in life without training
  • You hate resting/recovery
  • Training because your plan says so and ignoring signs that your body is too fragile to follow the structured workouts
Recovery tipsHere are a few suggestions to help you recover from a long distance event.

  1. Give yourself two full days to fully 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 drink with a purpose to promote recovery. Not eating/drinking for 12 hours after a race is not good!
  2. Avoid driving or flying in 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.
  3. Avoid getting a massage in the 48 hours post race. Focus on daily mobility for the next 48-72 hours. Schedule a flushing massage at least 3+ days post race.
  4. Skip the pills and focus on anti-inflammatory and gut-friendly foods like pineapple, fish, ginger and yogurt.
  5. Wear compression post race. Graduated compression socks (and not calf sleeves) will help with blood flow, especially when driving/flying.
  6. Use a safe,muscle relaxing cream (ex. we use Mg12) on any tight/sore muscles after a race.
  7. Avoid alcoholic beverages in the 48 hours post race.
  8. Try to get yourself into a good sleep routine as soon as you can. Do not allow yourself to return back into structured training (or setting an alarm to workout) until you can get a consistent 8 hours of sleep without waking up throughout the night.
  9. Give yourself 2-3 days of no structured training and have fun moving your body with low-impact, non-weight bearing activity when it feels right.Avoid setting an alarm or returning back to your structured training regime too quickly. There's plenty of time for that after you recover.
  10. Since running is very corrosive on the body, it's advised to keep your runs short (ex. 15-40 minutes) and to lower the intensity when you return back to running. Every athlete is different so I will not make a recommendation when to begin running again post race but typically you should allow a few days to heal damage tissues/muscles.
  11. Understand that some body parts will recover faster than others but there could be deep damage inside you that you can't feel. Be careful with intensity in the 3-7 days post race.
  12. 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 sickness or injury.
  13. Have fun in the week after your race. While you may not need a complete break from training,  enjoy non-structured, lower intensity workouts and having a bit more free time in your day, as you slowly ease back into structured training before your next race.