Rest and recover!
That’s it. Except people don’t or can’t do this properly. And it takes its toll – so please, please, please promise you’ll do the following after your big race. (As it’s spring marathon season, we’ll base it on a marathon, but the principles are the same for all long A races where you’ve held nothing back.)
1. Congratulate yourself
However you feel about your race, whether you got the PB/qualification/time, recognise that you worked hard and put your body through a lot to get to the start line. That takes commitment, focus, guts, time and effort. Go you! If you need to do post-race post-mortems (if you know what I mean) save it for a few days so you have gained some perspective and can evaluate it all objectively. Right now – celebrate and congratulate yourself.
2. Immediately post-race…
I won’t go into this too much because there’s stacks of advice out there. Walking around is good to help start the recovery process. Getting some food (ideally protein:carb in a 1:4 ratio) inside you as soon as you can stomach it. Energy drink would do if you can’t face food. (However, from personal post-ironman experience I know that if you don’t feel like food, there’s no way you can eat. I can’t help feeling that if you feel sick your body can’t cope with food right then, so there’s no point in stressing it more. But I’d still try to get some water down.) Shower, clean clothes asap. Proper meal, don’t go mad on the booze. Get an early night – but you might not sleep much.
3. Next day: do nothing.
‘Resting’ means different things for different people, but for all of us the physiological damage is the same. Your body needs time to repair and recover. It won’t recover if you keep exercising. I know I recover slowly and have no problem doing nothing except walking (ambling) for a week. However, I always make sure I do something the day after. Slow walking is good. So’s gentle swimming – lovely, supported, impact-free movement to get your muscles working gently to help them clear out the by-products of intense, prolonged exercise and flood them with the nutrients they need for repair. And I say repair, because they are broken. There is carnage in your muscles in the day or two after a big effort. So the exercise has to be gentle enough to help, not to hinder. A gentle, flat, no-effort bike ride is great too. But no hills! And no running. Running is so hard on your joints, connective tissues, muscles. There are good reasons for doing recovery runs during the training process if your body can cope, but post race you’ve nothing to lose by not running.
If you’ve got to go to work the day after – just negotiating the walk to and from the car, station, stairs etc might be enough! But get out for a walk at lunch time. And if you’re sedentary, get up to walk around and stretch frequently so you don’t stiffen up too much. Because if you think you were stiff this morning…
4. Two days later…
… wait until you get out of bed today! It’ll probably be even worse! DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) takes 36-48 hours to peak, which is why you might feel worse today. It’s also a very good reason for not leaping into your trainers for a ‘recovery’ run. Working muscles when they’re tired and damaged is more likely to delay repair and cause more damage. Researchers still haven’t decided for certain what causes DOMS. But athletes know what it feels like.
Also, you still might be dehydrated so continue to drink water regularly and eat good food. Good quality protein will help the repair process.
5. And for the rest of the first week…
Set against my comment that a bit of gentle active recovery helps, there’s various slightly conflicting bits of research out there. When I find the sources again, I’ll blog them. But Runners World once reported a research project which did daily muscle biopsies on two groups of well-trained athletes who had cycled to failure (ie until they could do no more) under lab conditions. One group then did very gentle exercise for the next week, gradually increasing the effort. I can’t remember the details, but at the end of two weeks they weren’t back exercising anywhere near full tilt – it was still all within ‘active recovery’ guidelines. The second group did no exercise at all for two weeks. The muscles of the group that had done nothing were more recovered after both one and two weeks. So the message looks clear, whether you’re an active recovery person or a ‘thank goodness I don’t have to run today’ person – going easy, to the point of laziness for up to two weeks does no harm at all after a huge effort.
You have to give your body a chance to do what it does best. It knows how to look after itself – all you have to do is give it a chance to do its thing.
Massage helps – at the right time
On that theme, I can’t help thinking that, because your body has been through a huge trauma while racing, it’s best to leave it to its own devices for a couple of days afterwards. The chances are you’d be too sore for any meaningful massage, anyway. Also it might be hard to tell the difference between normal post-race soreness and fatigue and real injury which would be harmed by massage.
Having said that, the more used to massage you are and the more used you are to hard endurance efforts, the better you would tolerate a massage relatively soon after finishing. However, dehydration and muscle damage are an issue which is why I think some gentle activity to get some fresh blood into the muscles is the best approach in the two days post-race.
So any time from say the Wednesday after a Sunday race onwards would be good time for massage. The worst of the DOMS will have died down and the massage will help flush out the by-products of the damage and recovery processes. It should be light and involve lots of effleurage (stroking techniques to boost circulation and help the lymphatic system), and possibly some stretching techniques, too, depending on how you feel.
And getting back into training
Don’t be in any hurry, certainly for the first week or two. If after a week you really feel the need to run – run. But be nice to yourself and run off road, not too fast or too far. Many coaches advocate a reverse taper back into training – this seems sensible to me as long as no one feels pressured to do more than they feel like doing before they’re ready to. Don’t forget you need to be ready for it mentally as well as physically.
And physically, just because the initial stiffness and soreness has gone, it doesn’t mean you are bionic and are recovered. It can take up to two weeks just for post-race injuries to emerge, and up to a month or six weeks even to recover properly from a marathon. Upto three (even six) months for recovery from an ironman. You have to respect what your bodies been through and give it a chance to mend. Even if you’re no longer achey, the muscle energy delivery systems can take a month to recover. I’ve even heard that there’s neural damage that needs to heal – but I know little about this at this stage. The thing is, you won’t know you’re not recovered until you go out and do a hard effort too soon and you underperform or, worse, get injured.
It’s much better, surely, to give yourself a proper break, come back refreshed and perhaps capitalise on all that training by delivering an outstanding performance six weeks after your marathon? That’d be a good reward for being patient!