A lot happens to the body during an endurance event....even if you don't have the perfect race, reach your goal time or find yourself slowing down. I find that many athletes forget the stress on the body (emotional, physical and mental) after the race if the race did not leave the athlete with a personal best time or "great" race. From muscle glycogen depletion, to overheating to dehydration, there are many things that can occur inside the body...regardless of finishing time. It takes time for the body to train for an endurance event so you better believe it takes the body time to recover.
The number one rule for recovering from an endurance event is to not rush the process. The second rule is to not compare yourself to others. I see it many times that athletes get back into training way too soon and brag about how great they feel. A few days to weeks later, an injury occurs OR the athlete is hit with the flu or a bad cold. Recovery depends on many variables and from my experience as an athlete to helping others with training and nutrition to observing Karel as a cat 1 cyclist, I feel that recover depends on many factors and not always can you "feel" yourself being 100% recovered. Poor daily dietary choices, improper fueling during an event, lack of proper hydration during an event, extreme weather, high intensity, long duration, extreme under-trained fitness, improper pacing and being over-trained before the race can all negatively affect your recovery.
Even if you feel "normal" and can walk down stairs fine after the race, this doesn't mean your body and mind is ready to bounce back into training. I know for myself, it typically takes me a full 2 weeks to feel 100% recovered although my legs begin to feel 100% around 4-5 days post race. The worst days are the first 2 days post race when my body feels like it will break with every step. Oh what we do to our bodies to cross a finishing line just for a medal, a hat and a t-shirt. You better believe I thank my body A LOT when I train and race.
Ruptured fibers, inflammation, displacement of red blood cells, disruption of hormones (cortisol, glucagon, epinephrine), low white blood cell count, oxidative stress, GI distress, electrolyte imbalance, brain fatigue, tearing of connective tissues and muscle fiber damage are a few of the many physiological effects of pushing the body for x-amount of time. It sounds absolutely brutal but with the right training, racing and recovery plan, it can be done and you can still maintain balance in your life while reaching your personal fitness goals.
Here are a few of my tips for boosting the recovery process (keeping in mind that no too athletes are alike):
-Stay calm post race. Your body finally gets permission to collapse, lay down or sit as you likely made yourself stay focused for x-amount of time to get your body to the finish line. Don't be quick to rush out of the finisher area. Take your time but don't spend too much time sitting. Cool off, re-hydrate and if tolerable, have something to eat. But do not make your body do something that it doesn't want to do. Try to walk (hobble) around and keep moving in order to prevent a sudden drop in blood pressure if you suddenly lay down and try to get up quickly. Be mindful of the hormonal shifts and digestion of nutrients in the GI tract that may cause you to feel semi-ok when you cross the finish line to absolutely horrible, where's the potty the next minute. Everything will pass within 24 hours (if not, consult a doctor) but your main priorities are to rehydrate, replenish and to refuel within the next 1-2 hours.
-For the next few days, keep moving but NO training. Remember, you can't train a damaged body or one that is low in fuel. Exercising is fine to get some blood flowing but give yourself at least a day or two before you do anything non-weight bearing (absolutely no running or lifting weights for at least 7-14 days) and remove any pressure that you have to do something. ENJOY your accomplishment and for the next week, any exercise should be gadget-free, non weight bearing and energy-focused. Stop when you feel good and if you don't feel like doing something, don't.
-Compression, ice, epson salt (cold), elevation. It doesn't matter the order (although ice and compression will help reduce inflammation -that is why I love110% play harder) but whatever you can get to first will help you out. Avoid heat post race. Foam rolling or massage can be done post race but I find that unless the massage therapist is very educated with endurance athletes, the massage will be best enjoyed around 3-4 days after the race. Massages after long/hard workouts are fine but post race, you may need just a little time before letting someone press on your damage muscles. Walking, compression, ice, yoga and epson salt will help remove metabolic wastes and to get your body back to a semi-normal state instead of doing nothing.
-Sleep. This is typically non-existent for me the few days after a race or at least, hit or miss in terms of a restful night of sleep. But try to rest as much as possible and recognize that your body is going to be off from the normal routine which means that your cravings for food may affect your sleeping and vice versa so the sooner you can get your body back to balance, the sooner you will feel recovered.
-To replenish glycogen and to help with tissue/muscle damage, it is important that you focus on a high carb diet with moderate protein, by eating every few hours for the next 2 days but especially within the next 24 hours post race. Eat as tolerated - if your body isn't ready for solid food right after the race, have an electrolyte drink (ex Hammer Fizz) and then when you are ready, a glass of milk, yogurt or recovery drink. Carbs can be wholesome in my opinion and still help with recovery but you will know after the first try as to what foods sit the best post race. My favorite post Ironman foods include bread, pizza, banana, pretzels, pringles, watermelon. Recognizing that I eat well most of the time, I certainly do not worry about what I put into my body post Ironman as I know that I am not a science project in a lab setting. My body lets me know what I want post race and give myself at least 24-48 hours to listen to my body..and typically it wants salt, fat and carbs so I start slowly with small carb rich meals, typically a few little combinations of foods and not a big meal until around 12-24 hours post race. Your body is going to act like a sponge to carbohydrates post race which is great for athletes who can eat with the first two hours post race. But if you can not stomach anything post race, just take your time and be careful not to be outside your home/hotel room as you may experience a quick drop in blood sugar and you don't want to find yourself fainting, dizzy or without a potty. I recommend to carry saltines, pretzels and juice with you if you happen to be moving around post race but can not stomach any solid food for a few hours. The body doesn't really care where you get carbohydrates from so just listen to your body as you stay hydrated and be sure to not consume too much too soon or else you may find yourself sick. Consult a medical professional if you do not urinate during a long distance event or if you do not urinate within an hour post race as you may be extremely dehydrated which may affect your heart rhythm.
-You are going to be sore post race. Avoid rushing to the anti-inflammatories as you do not want to damage your liver, kidneys or GI tract or make yourself believe you are feeling normal when you are not.
-You are highly susceptible to illness and infections post race. Be sure to keep your immune system healthy by washing hands, keeping chaffing areas clean and being aware of any blisters or lost toenails.
-Set a goal so you are motivated to train again but I encourage athletes to wait at least 4-6 weeks before racing again. I find that after an endurance event, my body is craving some speed around 4-6 weeks later and light activity around 5-6 days later...but certainly nothing structured for at least 2 weeks. The body and the mind need recovery and your sport of choice should be something you want to do forever so keep that in mind if you try to get back into things too soon. You have plenty of time to race again, be patient and respectful to the body. You may feel fine but your body is going to let you know a few weeks later if you were really recovered when you started to get back into training again. Many athletes experience long-term/chronic fatigue from getting back into racing or training too soon after an endurance event. Yes, maybe some can do it but you are only responsible for yourself and your one and only body.
When in doubt - give yourself 2 more days after you feel 100% recovered before you return to structured training. It's always better to take it easy for a few extra days and give yourself a little more time to soak-up your recent accomplishment.