If you're currently preparing for an iron-distance race this year, then the thought of what your body needs post-race may not have crossed your mind yet. Well fear not, because four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington has the following advice on how best to recover...
Completing a long-distance race has a profound effect on both physiology and psychology. Your muscles are broken, your immune system is shell-shocked and you’re probably in severe calorie and fluid deficit. No matter how fast/slow you are, everyone needs to recover properly from such an event.
Rest and recovery are not signs of weakness or failure. It’s essential to recharge your physical and mental batteries. Yes, you’ll lose fitness, but that process is vital to recovery and also to ensuring your long-term performance.
How long should your off-season last? I used to take around 4-6 weeks after Kona as my ‘downtime’. But it’s personal and is based on your previous training volume, fitness level, injury status, lifestyle and state of mind. I would loosely divide the 4-6 weeks into three stages.
Immediately post-race, have a few days off, with some light walking to loosen your legs. For the next week, do some easy, active-recovery activities to ‘de-train’ your body from the high workload. The emphasis is on the word ‘easy’ – don’t run. Swim, bike or hike if you want, but no hills and nothing that elevates your heart rate. And do no more than 45mins a day.
Also, forget strength work in the gym. If it hurts, stop. Actually, if you’re not enjoying it, stop. Combine this with light (self-) massages, compression wear, some really solid nights’ sleep, good food (ensure you consume enough protein and carbs) and rehydration with electrolytes.
Please don’t be alarmed if, after this initial euphoria, you suffer an attack of the post-race blues. After many of my biggest victories, I felt an ensuing emotional slump – an aching void where my goal once stood. If you experience these emotions, know that it’s normal and will pass.
In this first week, start to look back at your season: assess the highs and lows and be subjective about evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. Honesty is vital. Use this evaluation as the basis of your training for the next season and beyond.
After the post-race active recovery, I actually took two weeks almost completely off and instead engaged in non-sporting activities with family and friends: theatre, music concerts, restaurants, lazy spa days. I did sometimes include some light hiking, yoga and maybe some swimming, but nothing to raise my heart rate. The key to these first and second stages is to drastically reduce the volume and intensity of training that you do.
Mix it up
In the third stage start to do something physical at least every other day. Variety is the key here. Cross-training is great, or you might even want to try a new sport: rock climbing, tai bo, gardening – anything that will invigorate you, elevate your heart rate a little bit and get the aerobic system firing.
I wouldn’t do too much high-weight, gym-based, bodybuilder-type strength work, though. And if you experience triathlon withdrawal, there’s no harm in reintroducing swim/bike/run activities here. Eight hours per week is ideal: just keep it fun, unstructured and relatively low in intensity.
By all means indulge in different foods (and beverages). Don’t pile on the pounds, but a bit of weight gain will provide some extra padding for the winter months and give you fuel to feed off when training starts again. Now is also a good time to look at your equipment and make any changes. Have you always wanted to try a different make of pedal? Was your bike set-up causing you problems? Take advice from experts and use the off/early season to try these things out.
Most importantly, remember that post-race is your time to bask in the glory of what you’ve achieved. Yes, sport and training are important components in all of our lives, but so are rest, recovery, balance and perspective. So make sure the first few months after the race are characterised by large doses of these.
(Main image: Ironman)
For lots more long-distance advice head to our Training section