How should I recover from an ultra-endurance event?

Since my association with the Adventure Syndicate began in January 2017, I have been increasingly involved with athletes taking part in ultra-endurance events such as the Transatlantic Way, Transcontinental, HT550 and even a successful Round the World Record attempt. These events put huge demands on competitors’, both physically and mentally and I thought it would be useful to write about my findings on how best to recover from these long ultra-endurance events. Particularly as many events are finishing, in progress or about to start, the information could be quite timely.

So, how should I recover from an ultra-endurance event? The simple answer is to rest for as long as your mind and body needs. The process usually works well if you take the following steps:

  1. Rest as completely as possible; you probably need to catch up on sleep, so make that a priority;

  2. Eat and drink, you have probably lost weight and you are likely to be dehydrated so focus on hydration and getting back to a healthy weight;

  3. Get back to a healthy diet, ultra’ events often dictate that you eat whatever you can lay your hands on, which may result in an unhealthy diet, now is the time to get back to eating properly and replace any nutrients that you have been lacking;

  4. Don’t rush back into exercise, it takes a long time to recover properly and even if you feel physically recovered, it is likely that you are still fatigued both mentally and physically so be careful;

  5. When you do start to exercise again, keep it easy and go with how you feel. Most people find they can exercise at low intensities reasonably quickly but it takes much longer to feel able to push hard.

This process is very individual and varies from event to event, even for the same person. It is critically important to take your time so that you avoid longer-term, chronic fatigue and potential illness. The whole process can take from a few weeks for a shorter event to several months for longer events where you have dug really deep into your reserves. Be kind to yourself and catch up on things you may have had to sacrifice when you prepared for your event.

As with most things in sport, getting the basics right is the most important thing and anything else tends to be a bonus that can make a small amount of difference. With recovery, it is vitally important to give yourself enough time and pushing too hard too soon is likely to cause problems.

1. Rest as completely as possible

“That’s an easy one!” I hear you say!! In fact, in most cases, resting (and eating) is probably all that you feel capable of doing.

This rest period usually takes from a few days for a short event to a few weeks for longer events but depends on many very individual factors. The main thing is to be cautious because there is often a delayed reaction, whereby you feel like you are recovered, start exercising and then find you need to back off again completely.

Initially, it is best to rest completely, at least for a few days so that your body and mind can start to recover and begin to function as normal. It can be a good idea to plan for this recovery period by preparing some entertainment such as movies or books, letting your family or friends know you may not be good for much other than lazing around and taking a few extra days off work if possible.

As you are recovering, pay attention to how you are feeling; what your mind and body wants and needs, physically and emotionally. Once you feel like taking a bit of exercise, start slowly with something short an easy.

During this period it can be a good idea to include some light stretching, book a massage and enjoy some fresh air. Basically, be nice to yourself and do light activities to get some blood flowing through your muscles and promote recovery, stretch your muscles and help you maintain mobility. You don’t need to push yourself to do this if you don’t feel like it, you need to give yourself time and taking enough time is the only way.

2. Eat and drink

During ultra distance events it is almost impossible to be competitive and replace all the calories you are expending, or drink enough fluids to stay fully hydrated. Even with an optimal nutrition strategy, you will end up depleted and it is necessary to redress this balance. Initially, it isn’t particularly important to worry about the nuances of nutrition because over time you will move to a more healthy diet and replace any short-term nutritional deficiencies you have developed.

In most cases, it is likely that eating and drinking will be quite high up your priority list and assuming there is sufficient food available, starting the process should be quite easy.

3. Get back to a healthy diet and lifestyle

As you start to get back into your normal life it is time to make more healthy choices to build yourself back up and address any nutritional deficiencies that may have developed during the event. During this time it is also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by continuing to get enough sleep and to stay well hydrated.

Full recovery can be a lengthy process and it is important to be aware that the stresses of daily life provide an additional load on your tired body. It is often at this point that you can start to experience a delayed reaction.

Try to take account of how you are actually feeling and don’t have any preconceptions about how you should feel in any given situation. Things that you could easily cope with before the event could prove more challenging while you are still tired so take your time to get back into your daily routines and give yourself additional rest when necessary.

4. Don’t rush back into exercise

Don’t rush back into training, thinking you can jump back into more events and use the fitness you have developed during the event can be a mistake. It is common to feel quite good, soon after the event, as your body recovers but pushing too hard, too early can lead to problems in the longer term.

Wait until you feel like getting out for some easy miles and then give it a go. It will probably feel good to be out and enjoying the fresh air but you may find that you feel weak when you try to push harder. This is normal, take your time and the strength will come back over time.

5. Build up gradually

Surprisingly, there is often a delayed fatigue reaction, in that after an initial recovery and starting to feel good, wanting to get back into training. A second phase of fatigue can occur. It is important to accept this and give yourself time to get through it.

As you start exercising again, you will probably find that you are able to perform at an easy level of effort but the harder efforts just feel unmanageable. You are likely to feel your legs are weaker than you are used to and that you get tired more quickly. Don’t worry about this, just take your time and as long as you don’t overdo it, you will get stronger and stronger.

Can I do two big events close together?

Yes, it is possible to race two ultra-endurance events quite close to one another with the proviso that the focus between events should be on recovery and not on trying to pack in extra training.

This approach has worked well for several athletes that I have worked with, whereby they have carried the fitness from the first event into the second. It is usually best to be clear on which event is most important and then structure training and recovery appropriately. Trying to give an all-out effort in two events that are close together could be a mistake but it depends very much on the athlete the particular events in question.

Once you have completed the events it is important to have a good recovery as described above.

As you can see, it isn’t complicated to recover properly but it is vitally important. Over the years I have found that there is no substitute for taking the appropriate amount of time to recover and although it is possible to speed things up a little by doing the right things, it isn’t a good idea to try and force yourself back into working hard before you are ready.

Can I use HRV to track recovery?

You can use objective metrics like resting heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV) and your weight to give you some objective indication of your recovery and also how well you are recovering after exercise. HRV is a good way of tracking trends in your recovery, particularly if you have a good baseline from before your event that you can look back on and compare to your recovery values. However, be careful since most HRV apps work with a baseline that updates with quite a short lead time. Due to this, if you start using an HRV app while you are still fatigued it may think that your fatigued condition is the norm and any advice on recovery may be erroneous. Ideally, you should get a good baseline of values before your event and use these to track recovery in combination with trends in your more recent measured values. If you have just started using HRV, then it is best to look at trends rather than the advice given by the app. In general, your HRV should trend up as you recover and your resting heart rate should trend down, be wary of large changes and if the trends go the other way you should consider taking more rest. Be careful, take your time and ‘listen’ to your body and feelings.

Good luck, have fun and let me know if you have any questions or would like to see anything specific in our blog.

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