You’ve swum, cycled and ran to your dream performance. While a quick celebration is due, you can’t rest on your laurels for long as you’ve got another race coming up in a matter of weeks… and another one before the end of the UK race season.
Where many training plans show you how to refine your build-up to peak for an upcoming race, what’s often missing is how to continue that rise to race again and again in the midst of the tri season? Also, many training plans fail to elaborate on recuperation techniques.
Here we reveal the recovery ideas to ensure you’ll maximise your efforts at your next hard session or race. We’ll also delve into the physiological, psychological and hormonal details of completing one race to peak for another so soon after. Kicking off our recovery schedule is the oft-neglected task of post-race nutrition.
1. Nail your post-race nutrition
“When our athletes finish, they’ll consume an Etixx recovery shake,” explains Bob de Wolf, team manager of the Uplace BMC triathlon team. Etixx may be the team’s nutrition partners but de Wolf’s assertions are more than just marketing.
Etixx’s recovery drink, like numerous commercial shakes on the market, features a mix of carbohydrates and protein. The carbohydrates refuel the body’s depleted glycogen reserves, ensuring the body can perform a number of metabolic tasks more efficiently; protein repairs your battered muscles.
“Shakes are really good as many athletes just don’t want to eat after a race, especially post-Ironman,” de Wolf adds. “But when they can eat, foods high in slow-releasing carbs and protein are also a must, so pasta, chicken, rice and tuna.”
Don’t neglect antioxidants, either. While recent research has shown that vitamin C could actually inhibit the recovery process, a host of further antioxidants in fresh fruit and vegetables have been proven to clear up the free radicals that reach elevated levels after heavy exercise.
Left untouched, these free radicals can delay recovery from muscle soreness. So add a few florets of broccoli to your carb- and protein-rich meal to accelerate your comeback.
2. Do some active recovery
In days of yore, triathletes would charge down the finish chute, celebrate their achievements and remain in casual wear until well into the following week. Not anymore.
Although it’s worth lying back on your chaise longue and relaxing to the smooth tunes of Andy Williams, research suggests that active recovery speeds up your return to optimal health over passive recovery as it increases bloodflow to push out race-induced toxins, and also floods the body with oxygenated blood.
That’s why it’s advisable to go for a gentle swim or bike the following day of between 30-60mins. And when we say gentle, we mean it. Swim a mix of front crawl and breaststroke, or whatever feels more relaxing, and if you go for a ride, keep in a low gear and to a flat route. Or, if you’re a sadist, you could follow the Uplace route.
“Sometimes, our athletes will go for a gentle 2hr ride the evening after a 70.3 just to circulate the blood quicker,” explains de Wolf. “The next day they’ll go for a swim or bike. Running will always be the last discipline to start again because it’s the most debilitating.”
Running’s not advised too soon because of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), which is believed to be micro-traumas in the muscle fibre and shows itself a day or two after racing or heavy exercise. It’s a point picked up on by noted exercise physiologist John Hawley.
“Swimming and cycling are weight-bearing,” he says. “Running isn’t so the impact forces are much greater. It’s the eccentric contraction of running that causes DOMS, especially when you’re running downhill.”
Those who are hovering around the top-end of their age-group might also want to experiment with coach Tom Bennett’s post-race advice.
“One thing we do, despite there being no clear research to support it, is anabolic work, so something like a gym workout,” he says. “Endurance exercise is catabolic (so breaks the body down rather than anabolic, which builds it up), so we stimulate anabolic pathways to re-balance the body breaking itself down. But key to this is taking on protein.”
3. Squeeze out the pain
Many triathlons offer the opportunity for some good old muscle cracking in the form of a local masseuse or physiotherapist. The minimal outlay is worth it because the masseuse will stretch out the working muscles and ease fatigue. You can also supplement your post-race massage with foam rolling.
“Foam rollers are tubes of plastic covered with foam,” says physiotherapist John Dennis. “They’re usually smooth but some have ruffled areas. Either way, the aim is similar to massage: to relieve muscle tension and ensure you’re well recovered for the next session.”
On the face of it, foam rollers couldn’t be simpler. You place the roller beneath the specific area, apply bodyweight on the roller and, well, roll… But key is that you elicit the right pressure. Too light and the result will be akin to stroking your leg; too hard and you could make the situation worse.
“It’s always a good option to have a professional therapist start you off,” says Dennis. “Because you can be in positions you’re not used to – like lying on your side – often newcomers to foam rollers find it difficult to execute the right pressure.”
4. Use compression wear
Once you’ve eased your tired but rejuvenated limbs off the masseuse’s table, it’s time to slip into the triathlete’s favourite: compression socks. Multisporters were the first mass-market athletes to adopt the use of compression wear, but it’s worth a reminder what their mooted benefits are.
“If you wear them during a race, they provide support, so your muscles will oscillate less, which reduces fatigue and, in turn, improves recovery by lessening muscle tears during a race,” says Mike Martin of 2XU UK. “If you don’t wear them during a race but after, they still aid recovery by improving bloodflow.”
The key is that the compression is correct so more pressure should be applied at the ankles, for instance, than the calves so that blood’s accelerated toward the heart for faster recovery.
Compression wear’s a common method of recovery with elite and age-group athletes, yet much of the research emanates from manufacturers rather than independent studies. The verdict isn’t unanimous, and both Bennett and de Wolf aren’t convinced.
“Compression is more recommended for use in travel, like a long-haul flight,” says the latter. “After a race, we prefer hot-cold therapy.”
From this author’s own experience, compression wear does have benefits. Whether that’s based on science or placebo is beyond the realms of this feature, but if you believe they work, then you’ve already improved your chances of a faster recovery.
It’s certainly worth trying them post-race if historically you’ve suffered with particularly sore calves. But, as de Wolf said, it’s worth experimenting with a blast of hot and cold water in your post-race shower as it could flush toxins out faster.
5. Reach for the tech
Readers of 220 who use power meters to set their cycle intensity are probably aware of Training Peaks. This online analytical software’s prevalent in professional cycling to monitor fatigue and freshness based on numerous metrics.
These include intensity and duration of session, power output (watts) and heart rate. Through a number of detailed graphs, the athlete can track their current state of fitness, which derives from what Training Peaks term the ‘Performance Management Chart’.
“Over time, as long as you regularly upload your data, you can spot trends of fatigue and form, like how well you recovered after a race,” says co-founder Dirk Friel.
“When you have a fitness level and subtract fatigue, that’s the form. The worst thing is for a rider to show up to a priority race and fatigue is higher than fitness. We call that a negative training balance. That’s something you might have after a race – not before – but you should hopefully see this figure rise as your recovery continues.”
Other high-tech interventions include the app Restwise, which gives you a recovery score based on your answers to a series of fatigue-related questions; Firefly, which purports to refresh your muscles through musculo-stimulation; and Fair Play AMS, an athlete management system.
“It’s a software that we use on a daily basis with our athletes,” says de Wolf. “It monitors a few key parameters including how they feel and how well rested they are. It optimises recovery of all our athletes.”
6. Get some good sleep
Despite the plethora of proven (and less-proven) recovery techniques around, the most effective is something we take for granted and is entirely free.
“Sleep is the best strategy we have for recovery,” says Shona Halson, sleep expert at the Australian Institute of Sport. “Because athletes are tired, they presume they’ll sleep well. But that often doesn’t happen. Add to that potential jetlag if the athlete’s racing abroad and lack of sleep can be a real problem.”
Factors like raised adrenaline levels, increased brain activity and twitching muscles can all conspire to have you tossing and turning all night. That’s why, especially for those who often struggle to sleep after a late-night training session, it’s worth having a sleep strategy.
“Things like refraining from using smartphones and sleeping in as dark a room as possible helps,” says Halson. “Eye masks and ear plugs aren’t a bad idea if you’re sleeping somewhere unfamiliar like a hotel.” Bennett also suggests looking at your nutrition intake before bed.
“The intake of tryptophan may help you sleep. That’s why our athletes finish race day with foods like milk, leafy green vegetables and fish. We experiment with the amount and timing as this isn’t well-researched but our last snack might be some peanuts.”
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Having a well-planned recovery strategy is important for all, whether that’s returning to full training for your next race or simply to make the following week less arduous. But remember to celebrate your achievements. When you’ve crossed the line, the pub can come calling. Don’t turn a deaf ear – especially as research shows red wine’s packed with antioxidants!