The Importance of Properly Recovering From an Ironman

Making recovery a priority can make you faster than ever.

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

I am staring up at the ceiling, and the daylight is creeping through the curtains. The fan is whirring above me, intensifying my grumpiness. I have just awakened from a restless sleep, and my body is a mess. I am sweating and every muscle aches. I have rashes on my arms, chest, neck, waist, inner thighs and ankles. My skin is bright red and burns. My feet are covered with blisters and my purple, bulging toenails smart with every movement. I lie there, listless, for more than an hour. Yet I feel a deep sense of accomplishment emerge as my consciousness gradually solidifies. The pain is proof of achievement. I had prepared for months, overcome obstacles, suffered through the worst of conditions, tested my strength to the limit—and I had succeeded. For the first time in ages, I can properly rest. Free from constant deadlines, crammed workouts, meetings, and minimal time with my family, I can take the time to once again find peace.

Triathletes often overlook Ironman recovery, but the period after an Ironman should be a time to gain perspective on all the emotions and experiences that ran through you on race day and during your months of preparation. It should be a time to reconnect with yourself, your family, your friends and all the other parts of your life that you neglected during your journey. After an Ironman, your body is smashed to pieces. But if you understand what your body has undergone both mentally and physically and how to properly recover from it, you will be able to bounce back better and stronger than before.

Julie Moss’ famous collapse just before the Ironman World Championship finish line on Ali’i Drive in 1982 is a frightening image of the potential hazards of Ironman. It should not be used for inspiration or a symbol of courage. Rather, it should be used as a careful reminder to all athletes of the importance of proper nutrition planning and the physical damage that can occur during an Ironman.

Photo: N.C. Winters

Inside the Damage

Scientists are beginning to grasp the deep level of fatigue that occurs after 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running. In your regular training cycle, glycogen levels are one of the prominent markers of recovery. But even after a punishing session, your glycogen tank is usually refilled after 48 hours of light exercise and nutrient replenishment. During an Ironman, deeper fatigue that extends well beyond the 48-hour time frame occurs.

Indeed, in 2008 O. Neubauer and his team published several papers from a study that investigated Ironman recovery. Blood markers indicated acute muscle damage, inflammation and increased levels of stress hormones after an Ironman. While these markers all peaked in the five days after the race, a few markers remained elevated after 19 days of recovery. A 1983 study by Hikida et al. that examined muscle damage using muscle biopsies after a marathon revealed that muscle cell damage peaked in the first, second and third days after the race and was still present seven days post-race. Interestingly, the scientists also found muscle damage through biopsies taken before the race, indicating that the runners’ strenuous preparation had damaged their tissues. A study by Warhol et al. from 1985 scrutinized the full 12 weeks after a marathon. The scientists found that the amount of muscle damage in each runner varied greatly, ranging from very little to as much as 25 percent of the fibers. They also found that after one month, most of the damaged parts of each runner’s cells were removed, but the healing process was still ongoing and continued until the 10th, 11th and 12th weeks of recovery. Similar to the Hikida study, they discovered scar tissue in experienced marathon runners, which suggested incomplete muscle repair, most likely due to insufficient recovery.

Other aspects of recovery and potential damage to the body have been studied, as well. During exercise we release reactive oxidative species—or highly reactive molecules containing oxygen, including some free radicals—as by-products of our metabolism. If they are not neutralized by antioxidants they attack and oxidize (cause oxygen to bind to) cells and cellular components, which can lead to inflammation and injury as well as possible health risks and aging effects.

To get an idea of what this oxidation process is doing to your body, think of what happens when you peel an apple. The skin on an apple has a high concentration of antioxidants, but the flesh doesn’t. After an apple is peeled and exposed to air (oxygen), it oxidizes, breaks down and quickly turns brown.

Scientists continue to study how potentially damaging this oxidative effect is on the human body and how it can be avoided. There is some consensus that when we exercise regularly, we build up our own anti-oxidative defense system inside our bodies that balances most of the production of reactive oxidative species during exercise. But when athletes undertake extreme bouts of exercise—such as Ironman races—the production of reactive oxidative species is extremely high and difficult to combat, leading to cell damage.

Scientists have also studied cardiac fatigue in endurance athletes. And while symptoms of fatigue are actually measurable in the heart, science suggests they are reversible within a two- to five-day time frame. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to learn about cardiac fatigue and how Ironmans affect the heart.

As the study by Warhol suggests, the amount of damage an Ironman does to the body is highly individual. There is a big difference between a Clydesdale and a featherweight, as well as between a back-of-the-pack age-grouper who walks most of the marathon and a top pro who has hit the wall but pushes on to obtain a podium finish. Athletes with solid run preparation will come away with fewer sore muscles than athletes with little running behind them. In my own estimation, it seems that women recover faster from iron-distance racing than men do. In other words, you must take into consideration your preparation, body size, gender, competitive intensity, race-day execution and the race’s course difficulty to determine how much recovery you will need.

A holistic approach is the best approach to Ironman recovery. Not only should we consider the physiological aspects of Ironman racing, but we should also understand the mental side and the toll it takes on one’s everyday life. It takes time to fully understand great achievements, and we should never become so obsessed with getting back on track that we forget to evaluate, reassess and recharge our drive. Improper recovery—physically or mentally—will bite you in the tail in the long-term.

Based on science today, we can draw up a model of Ironman recovery that covers the time from when you cross the finish line until you are fully recovered and ready to tackle your next goal.

The morning after an Ironman, your muscles are a maelstrom of damaged, disorganized fibers.

Photo: N.C. Winters

Critical Days After a Race

Right after finishing an Ironman, your body can be on the brink of collapse and it is important to re-establish homeostasis as quickly as possible to prevent further damage. Dehydration, heat exhaustion and hyponatremia—a deficiency of sodium in the blood—are all serious conditions that, in the worst case scenarios, can be life threatening. Julie Moss’ famous collapse just before the Ironman World Championship finish line on Ali’i Drive in 1982 is a frightening image of the potential hazards of Ironman. It should not be used for inspiration or a symbol of courage. Rather, it should be used as a careful reminder to all athletes of the importance of proper nutrition planning and the physical damage that can occur during an iron-distance race.

Once you cross the finish line, your main concern should be replenishing electrolytes, fluids and energy. It’s fine to use your standard refueling routine, which for most people is an energy drink with a 4-to-1 mixture of carbohydrates to protein. Make sure to give your body one gram of carbohydrates per every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight.

If you can, once you have begun to get fluids and nutrition into your body, keep walking and gently moving your legs for 15 to 20 minutes after the finish. This will help your body cool down and provide much needed nutrient-rich blood to your depleted muscles.

In very hot conditions, you must pay extra attention to cooling yourself. Activities such as ice baths, the use of compression devices and apparel, light massages and gentle stretching will also aid in the recovery process.

In the 24 hours post-Ironman, you should pay special attention to taking in antioxidants to combat your body’s overproduction of reactive oxidative species, according to one of the papers that was based on the Neubauer study. Most scientists recommend that you take in these antioxidants naturally and not through supplementation, as supplementation puts you at risk of getting too many antioxidants, which can make them reactive like free radicals. Berries, dried fruits, whole grains, dark chocolate and vegetables such as broccoli, kale and garlic are all good antioxidant sources.

Often, when athletes have finished an Ironman, they want to let loose a little to make up for the strict exercise and nutrition schedules that they have been following for the past several months. While it’s understandable when athletes dive for the pizza box after a race, it’s more beneficial to sneak in berries, dried fruits and a bit of dark chocolate along the way, and your body will love you for it.

Drinking alcohol in the 24 hours post-Ironman is not recommended. It impairs your ability to rehydrate and restock glycogen, it increases swelling around damaged areas, and your ability to heal will be hindered.

The morning after an Ironman, you will painfully realize what you have done to yourself, as the body is no longer flying high on stress hormones and natural painkillers such as endorphins. Your muscles have become a maelstrom of damaged, disorganized fibers all bundled up and swollen from inflammation. Most people can barely get out of bed and they walk with great discomfort. Getting downstairs is a mini nightmare.

To get through this portion of recovery, complete physical rest can work, but it’s best to get in light stretching and gentle physical activity such as swimming, cycling and walking for about 30 to 45 minutes per day in the week following an Ironman. This will increase blood flow to the muscles and gradually stretch and move those damaged fibers so they heal properly without forming scar tissue. While muscles are still sore, massage should be very light and focused on flushing only.

This is also the time to focus on a healthy diet and include natural sources of antioxidants to balance the oxidative stress your body is experiencing. Keep track of your fluid and electrolyte intake and sneak in midday naps if possible. These naps enhance recovery because growth hormone is released during sleep.

The Iron Recovery

In the week after an Ironman, soreness is usually gone and you can gradually start thinking about swimming and cycling. But you should still keep sessions easy, short and light.

You can try a short jog to assess how you feel and your fitness level. If you are not ready, your legs will turn into bricks within a few miles. Remember that recovery is still ongoing. If you can, wait for at least two weeks before jogging, or three to five days after your soreness is gone, and then try a 20-minute test jog. Wait another two days and then do another run. Continue like this until you can run 45 minutes easily, every third day, without abnormal fatigue. You can then progress to running One week post-race, the Ironman blues might catch up with you. The buzz is gone and all the time and energy that had been occupied by training is no longer booked. You might lack focus. Many athletes go through this recovery period semi-depressed, which is a natural reaction to the mental toll an Ironman takes on a person. Instead of getting caught up in the blues, enjoy letting go and flowing with whatever your mood and life bring. Schedule downtime into your calendar like you used to plan training sessions. Take the family on a vacation or weekend trip. Hang out with friends and enjoy life outside of triathlon.

Three weeks post-race, you can take up a more normal base training routine. However, your training load and intensity should be kept moderate as recovery continues.
When I was a professional Ironman athlete, I usually felt like I had a blanket on for weeks after a race—as if my body was suppressed and could no longer handle my usual high levels of training. Trying to do intense sessions or mega-mileage at this stage of recovery will only leave you spiraling into overtraining and poor performance.

After six weeks, you can begin more intense training, but peak training loads and competing in another race should be kept on hold. According to scientific literature, the complete healing process takes approximately three months, which also seems to be the minimum time you should allow yourself before intense training blocks where you are maxing yourself out at 100 percent.

The best-case scenario, then, is to allow yourself at least five to six months between iron-distance races so that your body has time to recover and rebuild fitness. Planning a race sooner than that might increase the risk of permanent muscle damage that, over time, will decrease your performance.

In marathon running, where racers experience similar muscle damage, there is a far greater respect for what the distance does to you—elite marathoners rarely race more than two marathons a year and give themselves at least four months between them.

The Caveat

Many pros and also some age-groupers practice serial iron-distance racing. For example, Hillary Biscay and Rebekah Keat raced several iron-distance races in a four-week span in 2010. Dirk Bockel raced Ironman Florida four weeks after his eighth-place showing at the Ironman World Championship, and several other top pros such as Rasmus Henning, Timo Bracht and Chris Lieto raced Ironman Arizona a mere six weeks post Kona.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with former pro and current coach Paul Huddle about this phenomenon. He mentioned his “10 percent freak rule”: 10 percent of the population can do all the things the rest of us can’t and get away with it. In my opinion, however, the rule is closer to 1 percent. The Ironman healing process lasts for up to three months, and it takes even longer to build your fitness back up again. While there might be athletes who recover quicker and can handle post-Ironman racing with success, I believe serial racing cuts most careers short and causes injuries and burnout. If you race before you are fully recovered you are risking scar tissue buildup, which hinders your longevity and ability to run fast late in your career—not to mention your general wellbeing for the rest of your life. Racing too soon also dramatically lengthens your recovery period and might hamper your base building phase for the next season.

In marathon running, where racers experience similar muscle damage, there is a far greater respect for what the distance does to you—elite marathoners rarely race more than two marathons a year and give themselves at least four months between them. If we adopt this respect in triathlon, Ironman racing can be a life-altering experience, and one you can enjoy late into your career.

Sindballe is a triathlon coach and former professional triathlete who finished third at the 2007 Ironman World Championship.