Rest and recovery is critical through all your training cycles. It is in the recovery that we give our body a chance to adapt to the stresses we place on it in training. Bottom line: training without recovery will not result in the gains you are looking for. Your body will eventually break down. This is unquestionably the most difficult message for all of us overachieving (overtraining) athletes.
Recovering from a race is necessary for the same reasons, but different in that you don’t (shouldn’t) reach the post race level of fatigue in your training. A race takes so much out of you – it is, after all, what all that training was for – that you would do well to pay special attention to recovery.
1: Keep moving. I don’t mean keep training. Depending on the length of your race, what its priority was, your racing intensity, etc. the days, week(s) or month(s) post race should not be thought of as training. Sitting on the couch eating bonbons is not the right approach either. It’s ok (great actually) to take days off, but it is also important to incorporate active recovery. This is lighter activity that makes your joints move, your muscles contract and your blood flow. It shouldn’t tax your system. You will think you are recovered before you are, so give yourself enough time. There are recovery calculators out there to give you some guidelines, but ultimately it is different for everyone. For me, after racing 6 hours at a high intensity and with no other triathlons on my calendar, I expect it will be 2 or even 3 weeks before I am fully recovered. Rushing back into training on a partially recovered body won’t do you a damn bit of good. Resist the urge!
2: Compress yourself: I do not use compression during races but I am a big fan of compression after races. Last time I checked the research could go either way on whether compression is beneficial during races. There seems to be slightly greater consensus that it can help with recovery. The simple explanation is that compression helps improve blood flow to assist your body in clearing out all the post exercise/post race waste products and help reduce inflammation. For me, it’s personal, because just thinking about a hot day makes my legs swell: compression is simply my best tool against the dreaded post race cankles!
Be careful when choosing your compression gear. If you are fortunate to have access to something like the Normatec Recovery boots, those are by far the most impressive compression out there. But if you are looking for wearable compression, do your research and remember that compression tights/socks/whatever needs to FEEL like they are compressing you: i.e. they must be snug.
3: Ice, ice baby: The topic of ice baths will break a room of coaches into two diametrically opposed groups. “Absolutely” or “hell no”! I am on the absolutely side but let me tell you why. It is not all encompassing or scientifically indisputable. The thought behind ice baths is to again reduce inflammation, and there is no question that it does reduce inflammation. The argument is whether reducing inflammation is good or bad. Inflammation is your body’s natural way of healing itself: we break muscle fibers, they become inflamed, they heal and voila, they are stronger! There is some evidence that suggests that by submerging your lower body in ice and stopping some of this inflammation, you delay muscle recovery and inhibit muscle growth. I see the logic in that. So maybe an ice bath after every workout is not the answer. But inflammation is often off the charts after an intense race. And there are the cankles to think about. Not to mention the inflamed joints that some of us older folks have – not much benefit to inflamed joints. I have found that a well-timed ice bath or two makes me feel so much better. And I figure there is still plenty of inflammation to heal my ripped up muscles!
If you decide you want to try an ice bath, let me give you some tips:
- Colder is not necessarily better. We are not aiming for frostbite or hypothermia. I have never measured but I have read that somewhere in the general temperature of 55-60 is a good goal. It could be a cold lake or a river or cold water with some ice to bring the temperature down a bit. Experiment to see what works for you.
- Don’t stay in too long. 10-15 minutes is enough.
- If you are doing this in a bathtub, I find that getting in before the water is at full depth is much easier. Filling the bath and then getting in takes a real act of willpower.
- Wear warm clothes on top if you have them, and a hat. If you find you are shivering uncontrollably, get out!
Ice baths don’t have to be miserable. They aren’t necessarily the most fun activity you will do in your day, but they also shouldn’t be torture.
4: Roll & mobilize: Learn to love your foam roller, lacrosse ball, [insert name of fancy mobility tool here]. Spend some of the time you would normally spend on your crazy training schedule to do some self-care with all the expensive tools you have purchased and never used. I know, I’ve been there. Spend just 5-10 minutes rolling out your sore muscles. Focus on any knots or particularly tight/sore spots, but make sure you give the whole body some tough love. Just like training, consistency is key here, so don’t just roll once and call it good. Try to incorporate it into your daily schedule while you have the time and maybe, just maybe, it will become a habit that sticks with you when you get back into your rigorous training schedule!
5: Eat & hydrate: You may not feel like eating right after you finish a race, but the sooner you can get some good calories in, the better. Anything you can stomach, really. Just make sure what you eat has carbohydrates and a little protein regardless of the form. For the next couple of days, focus on feeding and hydrating your body. You don’t have to go overboard, but don’t starve yourself after a race. Try to eat clean real food as much as possible, but don’t obsess too much. You can watch your calories again after your make it through the period where your body is just trying to function. Your body needs fuel to recover.
And in my world beer qualifies as recovery food.