How to recover from racing triathlon

Yes, storming past the finish line is an experience that should be celebrated and enjoyed. But it’s also where your recovery plan kicks in. Here’s the how, why and what…

The recovery process starts the moment you cross your triathlon race finish line

By their very nature, triathletes enjoy pushing themselves – in life, in training and, in particular, at races. Even if you enter the swim and think this event is all about you, focusing on yourself and on the process goals, as soon as the starting horn sounds, your competitive instinct kicks in and you dig deeper than you ever thought possible.

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As long as you eventually temper your racing synapses and deliver textbook pacing, you’ll soon rack up a new personal best. But then what? Often, you’ll stride like a zombie for the next week, your limbs stiff and your mind exhausted. Soon, post-race melancholy replaces post-race elation. But it needn’t be so with our recovery plan.

How quickly you recover is down to numerous contributing factors. We’re talking your age, your level of conditioning, the quality of your tapering, triathlon experience and even the daily stress that you’re managing. There’s also, as you’ll discover, what you eat, how you sleep and other more cutting-edge methods to banish residual fatigue.

Sadly for those of us who’ve tipped over 40, the younger, fitter and healthier you are, the quicker you’ll typically recover. In truth, we all recover at different rates, no matter how meticulous your recovery protocol. So it’s essential that you listen to your body and give your ego a rest.

You must respect time off or doing fewer training hours post-race, or you could simply overtrain and spend weeks on the sidelines. With that said, it’s time for your post-race recovery refresh…

How to accelerate your race recovery

Follow these 10 tips to maximise your post-race recuperation and help you train and race stronger next time… 

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Dehydration kills power output, hinders decision making and reduces muscle contraction. That’s bad for performance. Even worse, thicker blood slows the recycling of toxins and delivery of fresh oxygenated blood around the body. That’s bad for recovery. So keep on top of your race nutrition by drinking two bottles – one featuring electrolytes, water and maybe carbohydrates, and one simply water. In the heat, you can sweat up to 1.5l an hour. Undertake a sweat test in training to determine how much you shed. Simply weigh yourself before and after an hour’s hard session. One gramme is the equivalent of 1ml, so if you’ve lost 500g, aim to drink at least 500ml to compensate.”

2. Restock carbs & protein

We’ve said it a million times but replenish energy-providing carbohydrates and muscle-repairing protein as soon as you’ve crossed the finish line. The speed of delivery and digestion’s vital, so it’s ideal to consume both in liquid form. A sports drink containing 40-60g carbs and a protein drink delivering 20g-plus of the good stuff’s perfect. 

3. Choose your tools

There are a number of advanced tools and apps on the market designed to manage recovery. If you have a power meter, like those from SRM or Garmin, it’s worth investing in a proven piece of software like Training Peaks. For little more than a tenner each month, you’re given access to a range of online analysis tools that will help you to manage fatigue and peak at the right time. The software’s Training Stress Score (TSS) is a useful metric to gauge how hard or easy you should train after your big race.

4. Cool off post-race

There’s evidence that regular cold-water immersion can impair physical adaptation. But as a one-off after a race? Go for it. Why? Because cold water lowers markers of inflammation and reduces swelling by decreasing bloodflow to the muscles. The ideal temperature is around 15°C and you’ll need to stay under for at least 10mins. Just be aware that if you really find cold water frightening, this form of recovery can backfire as raised stress (cortisol) levels actually impair the recovery process.

Compression socks are a must to help speed up the recovery process
They won’t win any style awards but the physiological recovery benefits of compression socks are undisputed

5. Compress to impress 

Compression wear is a staple of a triathlete’s wardrobe. Yes, they look ‘unique’ but, despite evidence being equivocal, anecdotally they work wonders. This is because of graduated pressure, the idea being that a sock with greater pressure at the ankle than the calves will act like an extra heart, accelerating the venous return of blood. That sends free radicals created from exercise back to the heart faster, which accelerates their breakdown as well as oxygenating the blood at double-quick speed.

Fit is key, as the purported benefits of compression require eliciting enough pressure that the socks don’t slip down, but not so much that you feel like you’re applying a tourniquet. Research has shown that femoral bloodflow increases to 138% of the norm when the garment has ratings of 18mmHg at the ankles and 8mmHg at the calves.

6. Pick your cherries

Cherry juice is packed with recuperative powers that are especially useful after a hard race. The reason is down to a naturally occurring compound called ‘phenolic’. These are super-sized antioxidants that deliver a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, too. Numerous studies over the years have shown that tart cherry juice, from Montmorency cherries, reduces muscle damage following strenuous exercise when drunk before and after. 

7. Squeeze out the toxins 

An ideal scenario would see you enjoy a post-race massage. For many age-groupers, that’s simply unrealistic (unless masseuses are in attendance at the race). Instead, turn to a foam roller or pulse gun. A 15min post-race session will stimulate many of the benefits of a ‘real’ massage including: opening blood vessels to accelerate the removal of waste products and enhance the speed of oxygen delivery to the muscles; relieve muscle tension and soreness; and improve the muscle’s range of motion.

8. Sleep your way to victory 

Sleep is the greatest recovery tool you possess, as it’s the time when your body regenerates and repairs. Those of you who might struggle for sleep should wear an eye mask and/or ear plugs, set room temperature to around 17°C and ensure there’s no technological or light stimulation in the 30mins before bedtime.

9. Keep active 

Active recovery is vital. In essence, you swim or ride at a low intensity to increase bloodflow to your limbs, increasing the speed at which you’ll feed damaged muscles with nutrients while accelerating toxin breakdown. Go easy on the running because of the muscle damage it causes. 

10. Track your heart rate

Heart-rate variability (HRV) training measures your state of readiness to train. The idea is that small variations in the beat-to-beat timing of the heart reflect the body’s level of stress. Greater variations between beats – an increase in HRV – is associated with parasympathetic activity (rest and recovery), while a reduction in the variations between beats – a decrease in HRV – is associated with sympathetic activity (fight or flight).

If you wake and HRV is very low, that could mean you’re neurologically fatigued. So take it easy instead. Omegawave is one of the most popular HRV tools.

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Images: Getty Images