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After finishing an Ironman, athletes commonly ask me how long it takes until they are ready for their next race. They are often on a post-big-event athletic high, and keen to rush back. Typically an athlete will need six weeks to race again, so patience is key to avoid injury or overtraining. You may not be in prime race condition six weeks later, but you will be ready for a good push on the race course. Alternately, you may surprise yourself by performing well with the mountain of fitness you have built for the Ironman, the fitness impact of the race itself, and feeling fresh and motivated after a six-week break from the competing.
Here is a my recommendation for a six-week recovery protocol, post-Ironman:
One to two weeks post Ironman (two-week block): Ironman Recovery
The first two weeks after Ironman are critical to your ability to return to racing fresh. Take special care of your body and respect any aches or pains. Particularly be careful working back into running. The highest incident of post Ironman injury comes from too much running too soon. See the recovery advice at the bottom of this article for tips and tricks to hasten your recovery.
- Two weeks of recovery and aerobic shorter aerobic activity.
- One to seven days after the race: No running for seven days, and a minimum of three days completely off. This avoids pounding and helps the legs recover.
- Eight to 14 days after the race you can incorporate short aerobic runs (20-35 minutes), slightly longer rides (60-90 minutes), and swims back into your routine.
- Key sessions:
- Short aerobic bikes of 30 to 90 minutes
- After seven days of recovery, short aerobic runs of 20 to 45 minutes
- Aerobic swims of 1000-3000 meters, with emphasis on technique.
Three to five weeks post Ironman (three-week block): Aerobic Rebuild and Recovery
Gradually build back aerobic work, but still be respectful of the Ironman that is in your legs. Keep all cycling and running very aerobic through this block. You may start to feel good on the bike, but hold back as recovery will still be slower than normal. Getting too aggressive with your training too soon can set you back two to four weeks in your rebuild.
- Two weeks of endurance swimming, biking and running focused on re-building aerobic capacity and strength, followed by one week of recovery. The athlete should still take two days per week off, and overall training volume should be approximately 60 to 70 percent of your maximum training volume in your Ironman build.
- Key sessions:
- Aerobic endurance rides of two-and-a-half to three hours. Include long climbs if possible.
- Aerobic endurance runs of one to one-and-a-half hours. Run hilly routes.
- Low cadence bike riding, longer efforts of 10 to 30 minutes at 55 to 65 RPM.
- Swimming pull and pull with paddles for strength.
- Key sessions:
Six weeks after Ironman (one-week block): Rest, Sharpen and Race
- Take two days off, and perform swim, bike and run sessions with two to four short intervals at goal race pace.
10 Tips for Enhancing Your Post-Ironman Recovery
- Fitness and technique: Prepare well and work on technique in all three disciplines. Learning to maintain technique as you fatigue will help you race a little quicker and recover quickly. The most critical is maintaining run mechanics. If your technique breaks down early in the run, then the chances are that you are landing awkwardly and recruiting muscles that have not been conditioned for the job you are asking them to do. Using unconditioned muscles increases the load on your body and increases your overall fatigue and soreness.
- Have a pre- and post-race nutrition plan:
- Pre-fuel: Start the race well fuelled and hydrated. By paying attention to your diet, sodium and fluid intake you can start the race with your fuel stores topped up and ready to take on the challenge of the Ironman. By starting well fuelled and hydrated you are less likely to be fully depleted at the end.
- Re-fuel: Replenish your muscle glycogen stores and rebuild muscle with protein. Try to consume 1g of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight during the first two hours of finishing your race. High glycemic foods will be your best choice. You should also aim to consume 1 to 1.5g of protein for each gram of carbohydrate that you take in. Commercial recovery drinks will supply this 4:1 ratio easily since you may not feel like eating “real” food straight away.
- Re-hydrate: Restore your fluid and electrolytes. It is simply impossible to consume enough fluid to replace that which is lost through sweating during an Ironman event. By weighing yourself before and after the race you will know how much fluid you have lost. For every one pound of lost body weight, you will need to drink 20 ounces of fluid. You can then consume the appropriate amount to get yourself back to your pre-race hydration status. A sports drink with electrolyte will help you absorb the fluid more efficiently and will help you restore your electrolyte balance more quickly.
- Avoid the post-race massage: Even a light massage can cause further damage to already traumatized muscles. Leave the massage for a couple of days when it can have a positive effect. Waste products can be flushed from your legs, fresh blood brought in and tight areas worked on. A light flush massage three days and seven days after your race can help circulate blood that carries oxygen and nutrients to facilitate recovery, and work out the sore spots.
- Take an ice bath: The effort of the race will have caused some damage to your muscles and some serious inflammation. Taking an ice bath can assist your lymphatic system and reduce inflammation. Fill the tub with cold water and add ice from the hotel (or your home) ice machine. The water should be 13 degrees C (58 degrees F) or colder so a quick dip in the lake is unlikely to have the intended effect. Sit there for at least 10 minutes. You should take ice baths immediately after the race and the day following. Your legs will thank you!
- Sleep: Make sure you get some sleep. Sleep is the time when you secrete growth hormone allowing your body to repair the damage you have done. If you need to sleep in the few days after the race then take it!
- Contrast baths: Contrast baths are a great way of helping fresh blood start to move through your legs. The principle is to alternate hot and cold baths which will open up the veins and capillaries and allow fresh, oxygenated blood to course through, as well as helping to remove any waste products and allow healing to begin. Alternate three minutes immersion in hot water followed by 90 seconds in cold water. Always finish with immersion in cold water. Take contrast baths on days two to four post race.
- Avoid anti-inflammatories: Many athletes will suffer from muscle pain (or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)) and may be tempted to medicate themselves with over the counter painkillers or anti-inflammatories. I would caution against this as your liver and kidneys have been working overtime during and after the race. If you need more than ice to help settle the discomfort, you may want to consider a homeopathic remedy such as arnica or traumeel. Homeopathic remedies have not been associated with any adverse side effects. These remedies can help reduce the swelling within the damaged muscles, reducing the discomfort you feel, and allowing you to begin you active recovery
- Have a restart plan: Pre-plan your return to training, to avoid mistakes made by “winging it.” You can start light non-weight bearing activity (swimming, biking) two to three days post race and some easy running seven days post race. After 10 days, you can start back on your regular schedule but with reduced intensity. Having a plan will keep you motivated to start working toward your next race.
- Schedule your life: Life stress and jumping right back into the daily grind of work and other life commitments can greatly inhibit your recovery. Pre-plan your life and work schedule so that you do not return home to a mountain of backlogged tasks. Remember, you will be tired!
- Get a check-up: Prior to re-starting training you should schedule a body screening by your body maintenance therapist (physical therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor etc). Your therapist will check for areas of tightness or your other personal “alarm bell” indicators which may need to be settled prior to you starting the next cycle of training. Eliminating tight spots within the muscles will contribute to a more even blood flow and allow for proper biomechanics, helping to prevent and avoid injuries.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.