Monday, May 31, 2010

Ultramarathon Recovery - Lessons learnt

For some recovery is like the taper – a much looked forward to break from the intensity of training. For others it represents an undesirable but necessary period of rest, away from their regular endorphin hit.

I probably veer towards the former category, and use it as a time for reflection. It’s important to acknowledge what you have achieved, otherwise you could find yourself continually training without any personal reward, or fulfilment of goals.

The importance of a recovery period should not be underestimated. No matter how much effort you put into your training, you cannot mimic the addition effort you exert in an actual event. The atmosphere of a race, the mental preparation, and the benefits of tapering and training to a peak will lift you beyond what you will have achieved in even the most strenuous training sessions. It is because of this that some form of recovery is important.

There are some very experienced and hugely successful ultra distance runners who swear by gentle sessions of running in the days following an ultramarathon race. They state that by using the muscles that are employed to run, you aid recovery by flushing the build up of waste products, such as lactic acid from the muscles which cause stiffness (and usually the inability to walk downstairs!). For ultra distance races, where you may be out running for more than 12 hours at a time, you will suffer some cellular damage (including DOMS, which I’ll cover in another posting), and for this to heal you need a different approach.

Firstly you do not want to exacerbate the situation, so resting the muscles can only be a good thing. This doesn’t mean sitting in front of the TV all day, using your recently completed race as an excuse to have others wait on you hand and foot (although it would be nice), but rather you should not be stressing the muscles by overloading them or over stretching them. This can do more harm than good. Gentle, unloaded movements will help maintain a healthy blood flow to the target muscle (and other connective tissues) which will in turn facilitate repair.

Secondly, for your body to recover it will need to have the correct nutrients available. Antioxidants to clear up the free radicals generated as a by product of the muscle exertion, and proteins as the raw materials of the repair. I will go into nutrition in more detail in later posts, but it is obvious that if the raw materials are not present in your body or they are not available to assist in any cellular regeneration, then recovery will be slow.

Thirdly it is important to avoid the mistake that many runners, and in fact what many people who exercise regularly or even those on a diet do (usually as a result of injury, but the concept is the same). You will be reducing the amount of activity you perform, and hence you will be burning fewer calories. It is therefore common that during a recovery period a person will reduce their calorie intake to avoid any dreaded weight gain. This however is flawed as following a period of stress and damage to your muscles. Your body still requires a normal calorific intake to maintain your normal metabolic activity, as well as additional energy to aid the repair processes at the cellular level. Without, this extra fuel, your body is running low and you likely will take longer to recover and will feel tired for a longer period.

Finally this leads us to sleep (and I hope this post isn’t). Tissue repair mainly occurs whilst you sleep, and it takes about 4 hours of continuous sleep for you to physiologically slow down enough to focus on repair and regeneration. We all know how good we feel after a good night’s sleep, both physically and psychologically, and conversely how bad we can feel without one (just ask my wife!).

There are many formulae quoted about the rest and recovery the average runner should take, but these rarely take into account the above factors. For me, and I’m sure for many others, the prospect of losing the fitness level I have worked hard to achieve, by taking too long off, is not appealing. So my approach is very much in line with the concept I have adopted as a training mantra, in that we are all unique in the way our bodies respond to different stresses. I tend to work by feel.

Last year following TNF 100, (during my rookie year for ultras where I learnt a lot through trial and more often error) I had 2 weeks off and then entered the NOSH footrace in Sydney. A 15km trail race along the shores of the Middle Harbour. A really nice little trail race that I would recommend to anyone thinking of getting into off road running. The problem for me was twofold. I thought given that I had just ran 100kms that I was invincible, so ran to and from the event making my total distance about 32kms. In addition, as it was a race I found myself pushing myself way too hard (I was racing!), taking my heart rate about 10% higher than my normal maximum for the last 5kms of the event.

The race went well, but the return to home afterwards consisted of hobbling along with one very painful knee, which I later found out to be ITBS (Illiotibial Band Syndrome). In simple terms too much, too soon. I ended up having to wind my training right back, and focus my workouts on rehabilitation.

The positive from this is that I understand my body better, and know what I need to do to avoid this happening again. (I heard stories of some poor souls being cursed with ITBS forever, not being able to run more than a few kms without severe debilitating pain.)

So how have I done things differently this year? The main difference is having flexibility in my plans, and really listening to my body. I did not run for the 2 weeks after the race, but remained very active, walking and cycling short distances. I have been doing light stretches and gentle massage to any sore muscle groups, often whilst sitting doing other things like writing this blog. I have maintained a healthy diet, and had a few early nights.

What I have found most enjoyable about the recovery period is reviewing what I have done, and the plans for the next adventure. The most significant is the commitment to this blog.

Tomorrow, I will start my training programme, and set my baseline statistics to gauge my progress over the coming months.

Happy running



  1. Really helpful - thank you!

    1. Glad you found it helpful. Best of luck in your running adventures :)