How Long does it Take to Recover from an Ultra Marathon?

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Whether you regularly run ultra marathons or you have just finished your first ever you are likely to feel really tired. You might also be thinking about how long it will take to feel somewhere near normal again, or simply wondering when you might be ready to train again. So how long does it take tor recover from an ultra marathon?

A good rule of thumb is to allow 1 day for every ten miles run (17km), or if it was a particularly mountainous adventure with lots of climb, 1 day for every 6 miles run (10km). However, there are a number of factors involved in recovery which can mean that it not only varies from person to person, but from race to race. Here are a few things to consider when thinking about your rest after your ultra run:-

How hard did you run?

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This is not about how fast you ran but how hard you pushed yourself within your own limits. Some experienced ultra runners (e.g. Tim Noakes) believe that athletes have at best one ultra in them per year, and actually one every two years is probably more realistic. However, in this case he is talking about running to the best of your ability during that key event. Once you have given your all over a long distance, it takes your body time to recover, if you do the same distance but at a much more leisurely intensity, you are likely to recovery more quickly as you have not dug so deep into your body’s reserves. This intensity is relative to your own fitness levels, for some doing one ultra run at a very slow pace will be their maximum effort, for others, they could probably run at a leisurely pace and be ready to continue training within a few days.

Did the wheels fall off?

Related to how hard you ran is how the race actually went. If for some reason (poor nutrition, dehydration, fast pace) everything fell apart during your run, you have put your body through some extra stress from which it could well mean you need to take more time to recover…even if you scratched the race…yes that’s right, you still need to give yourself time to recover even if you didn’t finish. In fact it is arguable that you need to be even more fastidious about recovery if something went wrong; it could mean that you were too tired/over-trained coming into the event; in any case there has been some extra physiological stress on your body over and above the simple demands of keeping running.

When is your next race?

Whilst many people would choose one key event per year, others will find themselves with more than one ultra event in a 12 month cycle. If these two events are close together you are going to have to accept that both are going to be compromised and how you recover between the events is going to be key to your ability to finish them and do your best. Ideally two races of this nature would have a good period between then allowing for some down time, as well as a build and transition period. If this is not the case, it’s probably better to accept that one race is going to have less focus than the other. The more disciplined you are in running your B race conservatively the better you will be able to perform in your A race. This is relatively easy if your A race comes first, but requires much more psychological fortitude if it is after the B race. Either way races like this close together will need to be managed carefully with either complete rest in between or, if you have managed to race conservatively you may feel ready to train after a week or so. Of course, either way you will have gained in fitness from doing the first race, whether this was your key event or a B race, the trick is to recover sufficiently enough to benefit from the fitness gained in the race.

How Fit Are You?

The amount of base fitness, or Chronic Training Load, can determine how hard you will find your run, so long as you are sufficiently rested in both cases. For someone with a lower Chronic Training Load, they are going to have to dig far deeper to achieve the mileage required on race day than someone with a higher chronic load, as can be seen in the two athletes below.

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Whilst both athletes have a good history of training with periods of over-reaching followed by recovery, were they both to attempt the same ultra on the 20/11/2020 the second athlete would clearly have to dig deeper to complete the race than the first due to their differing chronic training loads. Clearly the second athlete is in a down period as can be seen from the steadily reducing chronic training load. However, it’s also clear that the first athlete in general carries more Chronic Training Load so even earlier in the season when both athletes were training hard the first athlete is likely to be able to support the stress of an ultra event more than the second (which is to be hoped, as the second athlete was not training for an ultra event!)

What does your Automatic Nervous System say?

It can be very difficult to decide when you are ready to train again and most athletes carry an element of tiredness at times during training so it can be hard for them to decide when they are too tired and when they are over-reaching. In this case it’s always good to have some more objective measures to fall back on. Increasingly, coaches and athletes alike are relying on Heart Rate Variability to measure the body’s physiological stress state and plan training based on the trends they see (remember in HRV in general a high score is better). If we look at my own rMSSD feed at two key points in the year we can begin to see how running an ultra distance effects me physiologically and for how long.

Example 1 - after a run of 32 miles on 13th September.

Example 1 - after a run of 32 miles on 13th September.

Example 2 - after a run of 40 miles on 18th October.

Example 2 - after a run of 40 miles on 18th October.

 
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In the first example, I ran (not raced as there were no races) 32 miles on 13th September at a steady pace. I felt good all the way round, but given the heat of the day, an unprecedented lack of water and the fact that my running partner and I were simply testing our legs at a longer distance we did scratch before we had reached the 40 mile mark. You can see how the rMSSD feed shows a drop in HRV for the days following the run but after about 7 days it levels off and by the 21st it’s beginning to climb again.

In the second example, my friend and I (again not racing) completed 40 miles of running on 18th October, in which I was hurting in the last 10km (nausea, and general tiredness). This time you can see from rMSSD feed that this cost me more. Here my HRV drops more steeply and further (although interestingly not until two days after the event) but again after about 7 days starts to climb again. That said, I would expect this to take longer if I had actually raced the events, as I would likely have been going faster. Equally, had the events been longer, I would expect my system to remain stressed for longer.

It is worth collecting and making note of this data so that you can decide when to start training again as well as noticing general longer term patterns in training.

How do you feel?

Some athletes seem really good at being able to self-assess based on how they feel, in particular how motivated they feel to go out and train. This is certainly an excellent system to use. However, I also know many athletes can be very determined (myself included) and as such will continue to override the drive to stop and take a break, running themselves into chronic over-training and/or injury.

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A good compromise for this mindset is to set off and compare your Rate of Perceived Exertion against external data such as heart rate, pace or power. So if you follow Joel Friel’s zones (captured opposite) and set off feeling like you are in zone three and note that your pace shows you to be in zone 1, this is a good sign that you are still not recovered. Alternatively, given that heart rate can often respond by becoming more sluggish, if you set off in zone two and then up your pace a little to zone 3 and after 5 minutes your heart rate is still straggling in zone 2 you are likely to be too tired to train. Whilst a good compromise this second way of assessing does come with associated risks:

  • If you are of the mindset to override your tiredness you may also be tempted to ignore the data you see and run anyway.

  • Once you have set off and run, you have instigated some more stress on your body which will accumulate with the stress it is already trying to combat - ie you are making yourself more tired to find out how tired you are, especially if you start trying to push beyond the aerobic zone.

How immune compromised are you?

I know a number of people who, at the end of their season suddenly and inexplicably come down with some sort of infection: a bad cold; a tooth abscess; shingles. This can be a sign that you are immune compromised and that your body just needs a complete break. Training and racing hard compromises your immune system and to continue to train without appropriate rest is a good way of making yourself very ill. Whilst it’s difficult to measure how immune compromised you are (although reduced HRV is a good indicator), it’s worth noting symptoms. After that last 40 mile run, whilst I wasn’t ill, my throat started to feel hot and dry as though I were coming down with a cold; this is a good sign for me that I need some time off to recover and let my body catch up with everything that I’ve put it through.

Keeping track of your metrics in some way can help with this as you can start to get a feel for what is normal for you. TrainingPeaks and HRV4 Training offer a wide variety of very easy to note factors including ‘stress, fatigue, motivation to train, sleep quality, general aches and pains etc. It really is worth the daily five minutes it takes to complete these for both you (and your coach if you have one) to get some subjective idea of how you’re feeling in addition to any objective data.

When should I start hard training?

I would usually give all my athletes a month of recovery at the end of their season; this down time comprises of very little if any training and looks something like this:-

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As you can see, this athlete has chosen complete rest most for most of this week, and given the plan is flexible with options for rest or light training this is a perfect execution of a week in down time. After two weeks we might begin to add some more light running into the structure, but this would be based on feedback from the athlete and a look at metrics to see that they are recovered enough.

In terms of starting faster training and harder workouts, I would allow for a good base period at the end of down time where there is little if any emphasis on speed work. This not only provides a better foundation for the next season but also ensures that any remaining muscle fatigue is completely gone before we begin higher intensity work again.

Can I speed up recovery time?

The short answer to this is ‘probably not’ but you can make it longer. Your body is individual and it will take as long as it takes. There are certain factors, however, that we know from HRV studies increase physiological stress and hinder recovery. These include:

  • Excessive alcohol intake

  • Excessive life stress (e.g. work, home life, exams, generalised anxiety). Clearly this is not always avoidable, but having good coping strategies in place can help

  • Travel (especially international)

  • Lack of sleep

  • Poor nutrition (this can be both over-indulgence and under eating because in your down time you don’t want to gain weight).

Take Home Points

  • Recovery from an ultra is likely to take longer than you think, but a useful start might be to allow yourself 1 day for every 10 miles or 1 day for every 6 miles on a mountainous course.

  • If you track how you are feeling you will have some idea of what is normal for you and will be better able to gauge how tired you really are.

  • Objective metrics, in particular Heart Rate Variability, are a good way to guide your recovery period.

  • Sleep and nutrition are just as important for recovery as they are for preparation.

  • Whilst you can’t necessarily speed up recovery you can promote it rather than hinder it by taking sensible lifestyle decision and having some good stress management techniques other than running.

Additional Questions

It’s been two months and I still don’t feel like I can train, is something wrong?

If you are genuinely concerned about your health always go to see a healthcare professional to get things checked out. If you get the all clear, then keep taking it easy, it will get better. Focus on other aspects of staying healthy such as good diet, sleep and try to find another focus, even if it’s just for a while. Studies show that engaging in pleasurable activities really aids recovery so take this opportunity to catch up with non-running friends, pick up your dusty guitar or catch up on some reading - whatever floats your boat to bring some joy into your life in lieu of running.

Is it worth getting a massage even if I’m not training?

This is a good time to ease out any longer term functional problems or little niggles. Once you have got over any initial Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) your massage therapist/physiotherapist will be able to go much deeper if they know you are not trying to train after a session and now’s a good time to really focus on that dreaded list of exercises they give you at the end of the session. Doing these religiously will not only pay dividends longer term but provide you with a daily focus away from running.

Clare Pearson