Recovery: why does it take so long? Part 1

Massage clients and members of WADAC (Winchester & District AC, where I’m a coach) will know that I’m very keen on recovery – enough of it and the right kind.

Many a WADAC runner has been told off (sorry chaps!) for turning up to a club track session too soon after running a race hard.  “But I feel fine,” they say.  “No stiffness and I can walk downstairs normally and everything!”  I try to persuade them that what they’re after is a nice gentle jog on the grass just to get their muscles moving.  I’m all for active recovery. But a track session 10 days after a marathon? Nope – just not a good idea.

A long endurance event affects the body in many ways – muscles, central and peripheral nervous systems, endocrine system (hormones) are all included.  The psychological aspect is also very real for many people. Never mind what their body feels like, mentally they’re jaded, can’t face more regimented training or just don’t feel like it.  And we all know how important the mental side of activity and competing is.

So is there a magic formula? How do we know when we’re recovered?  Where’s the research? And how about ultra runners who seem to be able to churn out a marathon every week or three in three days or ten in ten days… or more? Sometimes they need a loooong recovery but some people seem to just be able to keep going without any apparent harm. And look at the chaps on the Tour de France.  They get five days rest then it’s the road cycling at the London Olympics. (However, cycling doesn’t involve eccentric muscle contractions to the same extent as running so, for the most part, physical recovery for cyclists involves refuelling muscle glycogen.)

The guideline most of us are familiar with is that we need a day’s recovery for each mile raced ie 13 for a half marathon and 26 for a marathon.  But there doesn’t seem to be any science behind that, and it doesn’t take into consideration the athlete’s chronological or training age (how long they’ve been training), how hard they raced the event or how hard they trained. And it doesn’t really help with triathlon.

As a coach and massage therapist I think the best thing I can do is give people information, help them to understand the components they need to consider, then encourage them to apply some caution and common sense to their recovery.  And to remember it’s about more than just muscles!

Every time I come across a useful article or piece of information that helps to explain it I’ll post it.    To start off, I’m posting below a very readable, very clear, very interesting article from Triathlete Europe on the physiological effects of an ironman race.  It’s written by Matt Fitzgerald whom many of you will have heard of.

For those of you not doing ironman or ultras, it is still relevant because many of the effects start off early in the race and so will be happening in a marathon, for example.

The physiological impact of an ironman on the human body



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