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What Post-Race Recovery Looks Like

By Anne Rollins MS CSD RD LDN | Oct. 06, 2022, 5:42 p.m. (ET)

Recovery has long been the hot topic for pro athletes and weekend warriors alike in hopes of gaining any possible edge. We have well-established evidence showing that recovering faster means decreased injuries and fresher muscles for the next workout. This means more effective training sessions and better overall fitness and performance. Recovery is important every day, between training blocks, after a race, and at season's end. Of course, each of those look a little different.

One thing that doesn’t change is the importance of recovery nutritionally, physically, mentally and emotionally. Recovery for athletes has expanded from replenishing nutrients and mending the physical body to include an emotional component that is sometimes most challenging for competitive athletes. The finish line is not the finish.

If this is the last race of the season, don’t make the mistake of skimping on recovery. You may not require your body to physically regroup for more training, but the mental and emotional toll can be heavy and often go unnoticed.

During endurance events, especially with heat like in Kona, we deplete glycogen stores, electrolytes, fluids and create inflammation. Follow a protocol that replenishes these and includes antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. For short races, you may consider eating solid foods sooner, but for a distance like Ironman, focus on easily digestible and absorbable nutrients like sports drinks, BCAA, raisins, figs or dates. Initially, avoid heavier foods like pizza and burgers – your body is already busy recovering, we don’t want to further tax it with major digestion. A scoop of protein will get where it’s needed faster than a burger.

Recovery isn’t instantaneous, and the inflammation can be in high gear for hours to

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help speed recovery specific to Kona, but this can be condensed for shorter races or adapted for other endurance events. The concepts are relatively consistent.

IMMEDIATELY POSTRACE

  • Recovery drink - 3-4 grams of carbohydrate to 1 gram of protein is optimal for most athletes
  • Supplements:
    • ~1000mg Vitamin C - depleted neutralizing the oxidation from energy production
    • ~1200mg Omega-3 - anti-inflammatory
    • ~8 oz tart cherry juice - anti-inflammatory
  • Electrolytes and fluids - sports drink containing sodium lost through sweat
  • Simple carbs and sugars - easily digestible energy to support recovery process, replete glycogen stores
  • Ice bath - decrease inflammation
  • Compression socks - improves circulation, may decrease swelling
  • Legs up the wall pose - you may have a hard time getting in and out of this yoga pose after a race, but allow gravity to help re-balance fluid throughout your body and give your feet a breather!
  • Gentle mobility - Small movements may decrease muscle tightness
  • Review all the amazing points of the day - the best part! Race stories are an amazing bonding experience and a great way to process the day.

A FEW HOURS POST-RACE OR THE NEXT MORNING (relative to your finish time)

  • Normatec boots (if accessible) - just lay there and let the boots do their thing!
  • Compression socks - improves circulation, may decrease swelling
  • Hot shower - heat increases blood flow and speeds delivery of nutrients to the muscles
  • Tiger balm or other topical - menthol, camphor (and others) have anti-inflammatory properties and are absorbed directly to the affected area
  • Gentle stretching - move from mobility to stretching as you feel
  • Protein and fat-based breakfast with a small amount of fruit - after a day full of sugars, replenish proteins and fats (My favorite post-Ironman breakfast is egg, cheese, bacon and ketchup on a roll with a serving of fruit).
  • Hydrate and replenish electrolytes - after a race, you are still using more energy than expected and require continued repletion of fluids and electrolytes
  • Discuss wins of the race - race stories usually focus on what went wrong or was incredibly challenging. Make sure to include how you overcame that obstacle in your story.

1-2 DAYS POST-RACE

The recovery process is wrapping up but still may not be completed.

  • Heat - hot shower, hot tub, heating pad as tolerated
  • stretching/mobility - progress as tolerated
  • Topicals - continue to apply your favorite to achy muscles
  • Allow the body begin dictating nutrient intake - listen to appetite signals as calorie and nutrient intake begin to regulate. Athletes may feel very hungry or not at all.
    • Note: if you’re concerned with a low appetite, drink one teaspoon of baking soda mixed in four ounces of water
  • Watch videos/pictures from the race - celebrate and commemorate!
  • Plan your next season - even if the plan is “I need a week to recover before I plan what’s next.”
    • These last two steps can be helpful to manage “post-race let-down
    • Create a post-race routine that includes “what’s next” planning. Planning may not always be choosing the next race. Explore options to occupy yourself.
  • Planes can dry and dehydrating. If your flight is within a few days of the race, be extra diligent about your hydration levels.

WEEK POST-RACE

  • Monitor your body and manage any potential injuries or hot spots.
  • Check in mentally. See how you’re doing. Reach out to other athletes or coaches if needed.
  • Watch footage of your race, review race photos, focus on the achievement and focus on gratitude for the day, not the outcome of results. Most athletes will report “the day didn’t go as planned” or “it could’ve been better.” While that might be great data for next season, focusing on that too close to the end of the race can send athletes further in post-race doldrums.

Enjoy the training and racing. Remember, the finish line signifies the end of the race, but it’s the beginning of your recovery…from your heart and soul to your toenails!

Anne Rollins MS CSD RD LDN

Anne Rollins MS CSSD RD LDN is a sports dietitian for The Core Diet, Board Certified in Sports Nutrition, USAT Coach, three-time Ironman finisher and owner of embodyFitness wellness center.