Written by Coach Chris White -
In triathlon, we are well aware that we want to avoid injury. Thankfully this is more often than not, something that is preventable through proper programming, coaching and adequate recovery. One of the most obvious times when adequate recovery is of importance is post race. When we are recovering from races, whether they be endurance races like Ironman distances, or shorter but far more intense races like Sprint Distance triathlons, we need to consider recovery from the moment that we finish our effort and sometime even before then.
Over the years, I have spoken to coaches, physiotherapists, massage therapists, exercise physiologists and more. Their advice will differ in a few specifics but 99% of the time, they all come back to the same fundamental areas of sleep, movement, food and drink. In this blog, we look mostly at that 99% and what we should be doing to keep us recovering well and being our best in the long term.
Let's break recovery down into a few different time periods around your race...
Before and During Your Race
- Most people don't consider their recovery before their race. However, pacing and nutrition are key in this regard. The longer or more intense the effort, the more likely you are to be depleted of key nutrients or dehydrated post race, resulting in sore muscles and increased need to replenish yourself. If you get your nutrition and pacing right in the race, then there will be less of a hole to dig yourself out of post race.
- Your overall training preparation is obviously important. If you have progressively overloaded your training and recovered throughout the weeks and months prior, then your triathlon specific fitness will be up and recovery should be improved. Everyone knows the feeling of doing a new movement or exercise class for the first time and it taking a week to recover. Hopefully we're not going into our race totally under trained and under prepared!
First 24 Hours Post Race
This is where most athletes tend to focus our recovery efforts. The immediate aftermath of our event.
- My personal first port of call is food and drink... Think about your nutrition during this first 24 hours. If you've been active for several hours, your body will be crying out for nutrients, so feed it. Some good fats, protein and magnesium are on the list for sure, however this is also the point where you can splash out a little. Get the burger, the fries and the pizza. Don't forget the ice cream. Your body will be burning, burning and burning fuel for hours to come, so don't under-sell yourself.
- Movement is medicine. The inclination will be to sit and vegetate, but try not to lounge on the sofa or in bed for too long. Recovery is definitely improved by going for a walk or a swim and loosening up your tired body. Try an easy 15 minute walk or swim, followed by a little some very light stretching to loosen things up. Little and often works well here.
- Cold Water. If you are near the beach or cold, salt water, get in it! The sooner the better, but preferably within a couple of hours of finishing. There's varied science and protocols with this but the feeling of relief is amazing for the mind and tired, aching legs. Cold, salt water either at the beach, an Epsom salts bath or simply a bath with ice cold water will do the trick to wake you up mentally and help reduce some excess inflammation as well.
2-3 Days After Your Race
- Keep Moving. One thing that has always frustrated me is that so many coaches and athletes only look at the build up to race day rather than the immediate aftermath. That recovery, if we think about it holistically, is so important for the wellbeing of the athlete. Programming light movement in the 2-3 days after a race can be the difference between weeks of muscle soreness or an adequate recovery. Mentally as well, after training for weeks and months, it is important to ease into a period of rest and recovery, rather than just stopping altogether, even if you are not planning another race any time soon. In the following days after your event, plan to go for light, easy, short runs, rides or swims to get your body moving, blood circulating and release a few endorphins again. You can be as sociable as you like and there's no need to set any new PB's at this stage.
- Sleep. This is where the gold is. Your body recovers and adapts when you sleep. You will probably not get great sleep the night before your race, and sometimes if you are racing really long distances, sleep the night after can be pretty disrupted with all the caffeine and sugar circulating through your system. The days afterwards are really important, as your body settles down to normal levels. Look to get some solid sleep at night and feel free to indulge in a few naps now that you have a lighter training load. Your body needs it!
- Massage. Don’t get a full-on sports massage straight away after the race. This can be pretty painful as your body and your muscles are still in some distress, so either have a light massage soon after, or wait until perhaps a couple of days later for a slightly firmer massage.
- Food and drink. After the initial splurge, it's time to actually think about what you are eating and drinking. Dehydration can last for several days, so keep on top of the electrolyte tablets, even though you probably never want to see another sports drink ever again. No need to over complicate this, it's about getting in balanced, nutritious food to leave you feeling good.
The fundamentals of good sleep, good food and gentle movement should be the basis of your approach and armed with the above points in mind, you can find your own path to great post race recovery. Remember that these fundamentals also apply to your day to day training as well, so you can get plenty of practice before your race!