Completion of any endurance event poses significant challenges in terms of recovery. Among the most important considerations are nutritional replenishment, musculoskeletal repair and psychological recovery. Here’s my 9-step program for Ironman recovery.
1. Dedicate the first hour after a race to rehydrating with a balance of fluid, sodium and electrolytes. Even in cooler conditions it is rare for an athlete to complete an event without some level of fluid depletion.
2. Try to consume a few hundred calories of protein and high carbohydrate within 60–90 minutes after the race. Fruit, bagels with peanut butter, a recovery smoothie or chocolate milk are all good options. It will take up to 48 hours to completely replenish muscle glycogen stores, so there is plenty of time for that burger and fries later on when the stomach is in a more agreeable mood. Emphasize protein and some healthy vegetables in the 24 hours post-race.
3. A cool-down is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but a light walk or easy spin can help promote venous return of blood to the heart and reduce muscle stiffness—especially if you’re getting on a plane later that day. Personally I love to jump in the water and float around for 10 minutes after a hot race.
4. After a hard race—aren’t they all?—nothing helps my legs feel better quickly than an ice bath. Reducing inflammation early (just 5–10 minutes in ice is all you need) can help speed musculoskeletal recovery and reduce the micro-trauma sustained during extended efforts.
5. Skip the ibuprofen for now—yes, it can help reduce inflammation, but the costs outweigh the benefits of taking it immediately after a hard race as it can produce gastrointestinal distress to an already-irritated stomach lining.
6. Beware the 24-hour wall. After a big event many athletes find it difficult to sleep as they are still wound up from all the adrenaline. I have found it to be almost exactly 24 hours after the end of a race when I “crash and burn” and suddenly turn into a tired and cranky 2-year-old. Don’t plan any ambitious activities for 24–48 hours post-race.
7. Do not “train” the day after a race. It can be tempting to head out for a ride or run the next morning as the excitement has not yet worn off, but jumping back in is a recipe for injury and/or illness. I often take the second day after racing completely off, but if you insist, stick to a light swim or non-impact spin of 30 minutes or less.
8. Adjust your training plan. Half-iron and iron distances require a full week (70.3) to 10–14 days (Ironman) to recover. But these are minimalist guidelines for athletes eager to get back to training for their next race—there’s nothing wrong with taking an extra easy week or even a whole month after an Ironman if you feel you need it. Always err on the side of caution with recovery—missing a week early on may save you many weeks of fatigue and frustration later.
9. Have some fun! Eat some non-training-friendly food and go see all the family and friends you’ve been neglecting between your 4 a.m. wake-up calls and six-hour bike rides.