Crossing the finish line of an ultra is an amazing experience and once you cross that line the next phase of your training starts — recovery. Ultras take a big toll on your body and whilst lying on the couch drinking beer and eating pizza might sound like a good idea there are better ways to ensure you recover quicker.
We may think that post race rehydration is a priority but that may not be the case at all. In ultras it is common for the slower runners to be over hydrated and weigh more than when they started. If that’s the case then making a conscious effort to rehydrate is the last thing you want to do and puts you at risk for hyponatremia.
Also keep in mind that for every gram of stored glycogen you burnt during the race you lost 3-4 grams of water. This water will be replaced as you replace those carbohydrates. Given you can store approximately 4-500 grams of carbs and therefore 1-2 litres of water, it means for most people a weight loss of 2-3% post race indicates you are effectively hydrated and don’t need to pay any special attention to hydration above drink to thirst.
So don’t just go guzzling water for the sake of it.
A few beers or wines post race is not going to make much of a difference but if you have a bigger celebrations planned then yes hydrating post celebrations will be important!
Given your blood sodium levels are very tightly controlled and if they were low you would be in hospital there is zero need to consume electrolyte drinks post race. You will get all the salt you need from your normal diet.
Immediately post race we usually crave something salty and or fatty to offset the sugar intake of the past 10+ hours.
So indulging in your favourite fatty, salty food is a good thing to do. Be mindful that your stomach probably isn’t functioning at 100% and demolishing a party size pizza might seem a good idea but you may pay for it later. Small amounts of food eaten regularly for the first 24 hours usually works best. I often find the real hunger kicks in a day or two afterwards when the stomach fully recovers.
Once you have indulged make sure you get some healthy nutrition into your system — good sources of fats like nuts, avocados, olive and coconut oil; plenty of vegetables and protein. Carbs you’ll no doubt be craving and demolishing anyway!
This is when all the repair happens and you’ll need more of it than usual to optimise recovery and the training benefit from the race.
Despite being exhausted you may find sleep hard to come by the first night as your legs think they are still running and twitch away all night long. Try to make time to go to bed earlier in the following nights to grab an extra hour or more each night for a week – that adds up to an extra night’s sleep over a week. Studies have consistently shown that recovery and injury prevention is enhanced when athletes sleep 8 plus hours. Elites sleep 10 or more hours and that’s not because they have more time – it’s because it’s the best thing they can do with that time to enhance performance and recovery.
This may be a surprise for many but managing your stress levels is critical for recovery. You have put a large amount of stress on many systems of your body and you need to give them time to recover. An easy way to think of it is your body has a stress bucket and all your stress goes in there – physical, emotional, financial, work, etc, etc. When the bucket gets full you start to break down. Finishing an ultra has just put a huge amount of physical stress in that bucket so it won’t take much to over fill it if other areas of your life are stressful.
To counteract all that stress activities that stimulate the para-sympathetic nervous system are key.
Activities such as: meditation, reading a book, listening to music, slow relaxing walks and creative activities like drawing, painting and playing music all help. Try to schedule at least 15 minutes minimum per day doing this for the first week or so after a major race. You have extra time as you aren’t training as much so use it to help your recovery.
Getting your body moving again will help the recovery process but it needs be movement that doesn’t already stress your overstressed muscles. For most people regular 5-10 minute walks three or more times a day will be best. For those high volume trainers, or people who physically recover quickly, short easy runs are beneficial – but nothing fast or hard. The key is gentle movement to get blood flowing to speed up the recovery process. Cross training can be very gentle on the legs but good for recovery — bike riding, swimming and any other non impact activities are best.
Light massage to aid lymphatic drainage and increase blood supply will help. Either visit a masseur or do it yourself using your foam roller BUT go easy on yourself. Your muscles are very fatigued and they don’t need to be beaten with a foam roller (or an heavy-handed masseur – they can be great for keeping you injury free in hard training training but post race is not the time to be heavy handed).
Don’t rush back into it. Keep all sessions short and easy for at least the 2 weeks post race before you even think about adding intensity.
Things to avoid
Stretching already damaged muscles is not a good idea. Although your muscles may feel tight stretching them isn’t going to help, and may in fact make things worse. Stick to light gentle exercise.
Resist resuming higher intensity training too soon, even if you feel okay. I often see athletes that thought they felt okay and started hard training again, but after a month or so have reached a real flat spot and lost their running mojo.
The number of elites that are backing up for race after race and then disappearing from the racing scene for months sometimes years is alarming. Don’t be one of those who think they are the exception to the rule. Recovery is essential.
If you can give your body time to recover and adapt, your race can be a stepping stone to an even better performance in your next race.
Post Race review
Aside from the recovery there are always lessons we can learn from each race. What we did well , what we can improve upon. Its a good idea to make some notes not log after the race (but after the brain fog has cleared) on things like what nutrition you used, any particular features of the course to remember, anything specific about the organisation to remember (e.g. when to get to start line , how long the toilet cue was, what the post race food and drink was like) , if you think you prepared adequately for the race and if not how you would train differently, whether you think you should have run more later on or run less early on – anything that can help you if you do the same race or a similar race again. Dont make the same mistake twice !