After a hard workout or race it is important to do everything you can to facilitate your recovery. Doing so will allow you to return to training and racing at full capacity more quickly than not.
Hard sessions and race efforts will leave you dehydrated, deplete your muscle glycogen stores, inflict muscle breakdown aka microtrauma, and perhaps even some degree of tendon/ligament stress if the event is difficult enough.
That is all fairly normal in the world of endurance racing.
After the session is complete the first thing you should do grab some fluid for hydration then head out for a cooldown effort of some sort — don't just stop cold and sit. For shorter events and workouts, a long, easy jog, swim or ride is totally appropriate. For longer events a few minutes of walking around is probably all you're really up to and is definitely better than just stopping cold. This will help your body absorb some of the lactate floating around, flush out metabolic waste product (urea), and give your body a chance to rev back down from 100 percent effort.
Your next step is to keep drinking fluids with electrolytes and crank some calories back into your system. The optimal window for restoring your muscle glycogen (the stored energy within muscles and your liver) is really 30 minutes and no greater than one hour once you stop moving. While glycogen is replaced by carbohydrates, your torn up muscles will require protein in order to start the rebuilding process. Protein in post-workout nutrition has also been researched to enhance the glycogen storage effect. A general recommendation for your carb-protein post-workout ratio is four to one grams (each gram of protein and carbohydrate equals four calories).
The total amount depends on how long your race or hard session was and how big you are, but you might shoot for 300-400 total calories within that 30 minute window for races that last about one hour, and angle upward from there. For an Ironman or marathon race or training simulation you should start eating soon after and keep eating for a few hours.
Liquid meals are the easiest to absorb immediately post-workout and there are a number of products on the market that can fulfill this need.
Please note that for easy and/or short workouts your needs are less because your breakdown and storage use is less. Cramming a bunch of food in your mouth after those short workouts might be counterproductive in the grand scheme of things.
Then you're off for rest. Take it easy for the rest of the day, using compression gear has some studied effect on reducing the delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), and sleep — when your body goes into overdrive on repair and replace at the cellular level. During sleep we all release more human growth hormone, which is a primary stimulant for rebuilding your body.
Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen, aspirin or ibuprofen in short term may help with reducing muscle soreness and inflammation. Generally speaking you should take the smallest dose that helps reduce pain to avoid potential GI and renal issues. Find further reading here.
An easy workout the day after the race or hard workout is appropriate for short races as well as for long-course athletes who are accustomed to higher training loads. For some, another day of rest and really light activity like walking is best.
Taking a five-minute ice bath soon after a race or hard workout may be helpful but the research on the effectiveness of this is inconclusive and the practice is potentially dangerous.
To recap, after your race or hard session: Rehydrate, refuel, rest, use compression gear, limit NSAIDs, sleep well, and train commensurate to your athletic ability in the days following.
Coach Marty Gaal is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist. He has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read about One Step Beyond coaching services at osbmultisport.com and follow Marty on twitter @martygaal.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.