4 Effective Recovery Techniques for After a Long Endurance Event

CTS Athletes compete in a wide range of events, from those lasting a few minutes to more than 30 hours. On the long end are athletes competing in Dirty Kanza 200, the Leadville 100 MTB and Run, the Western States Endurance Run, Ironman triathlons all over the world, and multi-day events like Cape Epic and Haute Route Rockies. Preparing for these endurance events can take months or years, but it is also important to focus on what should happen in the immediate aftermath of these massive challenges. Paying attention to post-event recovery helps you get back to normal activities of daily life sooner, and back to your training routine more quickly.

How important is post-event recovery? Well, think of it in terms of Mount Everest. It is frequently said that getting to the summit is only half of the task, and perhaps the easier and less risky half. More climbers die on the way down than on the way up. Your endurance event doesn’t end when you cross the finish line. You’re not done yet. The event doesn’t truly end until you have recovered from the impact the event has had on your body.

After spending hours or days engaged in your goal event, adequate recovery is the foremost goal for these athletes who have produced a massive spike in fatigue. Here are some effective recovery techniques you can apply after your training sessions to quickly bounce back and return to your normal activities.

How to Recover From a Long Endurance Event

1. Focus on Fluid Intake Throughout the Days Following Your Event

In ultraendurance events it becomes impossible to replace all your fluids during the event, leaving you at least somewhat dehydrated at the end of the effort. After the event, rehydration should be your first priority because it can take many hours for your body to absorb fluids and bring levels in muscles, blood plasma, and intracellular fluid back to normal.

It’s helpful to weigh yourself before and after a workout or event so you can estimate how much fluid you lost and how well you stayed hydrated during the event. Following a regular workout or shorter event, you want to consume 150% of the fluid weight you lost within the first 4-6 hours afterward. In other words, if you lost 2 pounds (32 ounces), you want to consume 48 ounces in those 4-6 hours. Following ultraendurance events, swelling and sodium/fluid balance can make it difficult to evaluate hydration status by bodyweight or urine color alone. For one-day events you don’t need to recover and compete or train again the following day, so take a conservative approach and gradually consume both food and fluids. If you are participating in a multi-day event you may need to take a more aggressive approach to rehydration.

2. Replenish Energy Levels With Quality Nutrition

Post-workout nutrition is typically focused on replenishing carbohydrates to bring glycogen stores back to normal so you can train or compete again at full capacity within the next 24-48 hours. During an ultraendurance event, however, athletes experience more muscle breakdown than you normally would during a shorter (even very intense) workout. As a result, protein and fat increase in importance for post-event recovery following ultraendurance events. This doesn’t mean “eat only protein and fat”, but rather that your muscles and immune system will benefit from a balanced approach that incorporates carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Rapidly replenishing carbohydrate doesn’t need to be top priority the way it often is following shorter, high-intensity interval training sessions. Keep in mind, too, that there’s still no reason for massive quantities of protein. For medium to high workload athletes 1.2-1.7 g/kg of protein spread throughout the day is adequate, and anything above 2 g/kg will not be beneficial to your recovery (read more about protein intake here).

3. Get More Sleep

After a muscle-damaging event there are a lot of hormonal, neurological, and physical repairs that needs to be done for the body to recover, and much of this happens while we are sleeping. Deep sleep is crucial to an athlete’s recovery because this is when human growth hormone is released, which stimulates muscle growth and repair. For optimal recovery, most athletes need between seven and ten hours of sleep a night.

It’s also imperative that you get quality sleep as disruption to deep to sleep can hinder the release of human growth hormone and subsequently hinder your recovery. To help avoid interruptions to your sleep, try to sleep in a cooler environment (set your bedroom temperature between 65 degrees and 72 degrees Fahrenheit), limit your exposure to light before and during sleep, and avoid consuming alcohol before going to sleep.

4. Utilize Compression

In an earlier article we dispelled the myth about elevating your legs to help drain lactate and prevent blood from pooling in your legs, however, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits at all. Elevating your legs, using compression garments, and pneumatic compression (Normatec boots) may help with reducing swelling from extracellular fluid and lymph. This may be especially true following ultraendurance events because they tend to bring on more swelling in the first place. Research on compression for recovery doesn’t provide complete agreement on whether it is helpful or not. You can find studies on both sides, including one from Born, et al. that looked at the effect of compression garments on recovery and showed a reduction in muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain, and observed a positive effect on recovery of maximal strength and power. One thing is certain, however: pneumatic compression boots make you sit still and rest, which is good for recovery and something many athletes simply don’t do or won’t do for long enough.

Van Cauter E, Plat L., “Physiology of growth hormone secretion during sleep.

J Pediatr. 1996 May;128(5 Pt 2):S32-7.

Born DP, Sperlich B, Holmberg HC., “Bringing light into the dark: effects of compression clothing on performance and recovery.” Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Jan;8(1):4-18.

8 Responses to “4 Effective Recovery Techniques for After a Long Endurance Event”

  1. Michael Vipond

    Fondo recovery I understand. Multi day riding and events are looming next year. I’m curious about specific post ride recovery foods that you would suggest. what do you suggest to your guests in the Mammoth Fondo camp?

    Reply
  2. Martin

    I find the leg specific sessions at Mobility WOD very helpful and can substitute if you don’t happen to have a friendly masseuse to hand. e.g. kettlebell thigh smashes. These can be coupled with Voodoo bands for high intensity blood flow restriction that, in my experience, is far more effective than compression wear.

    Reply
  3. Laurie

    You should NEVER wear graduated compression socks (20-30 mmHg for example) when sleeping at night. Compression such as this should only be worn during wake times due to the need for high working pressure garments. If sleeping an alternative low resting compression garment should be used. There will still be the same compression strength, just provided in a much different and safer manner. Significant damage can be caused to the venous and lymphatic system when compression socks are used incorrectly.

    Laurie Steen, OTR/L, CLT-LANA
    Occupational Therapist and
    Certified Lymphedema Specialist
    Lymphology Association of North America

    Reply
  4. CTS

    Sheila and Samantha,
    Post-exercise insomnia is a real thing and is relatively common. There isn’t one cause or even the same causes for all people, but factors include: exercise of above normal intensity/duration, caffeine or stimulant ingestion during exercise, hydration status and core temperature, hormone levels during and following exercise.

    Stress from exercise increases cortisol levels, and on a day to day basis your cortisol levels normally peak shortly after you wake up and gradually decline through the day. A very strenuous bout of exercise or a long endurance event can result in elevated cortisol levels when they would normally be declining or low (in the evening, when it’s time for sleep), and elevated cortisol levels can contribute to disturbed sleep. The caffeine ingested during or adrenaline released during an event can be factor, but adrenaline levels fall quickly and many athletes are habituated to caffeine. A study by Pourvaghar indicated that although adrenaline levels fall rapidly, norepinephrine levels can stay elevated up to 48 hours after exhaustive endurance exercise, and this excitatory hormone may contribute to the sleeplessness you’re experiencing after strenuous events. Hydration status and core temperature can contribute to sleeplessness, as well. People get more restful sleep in cooler environments, and core temperature typically falls slightly during sleep. If your core temperature is elevated after a long and hot day participating in an event, it can be difficult to get to sleep and remain restfully asleep. This is why it is important to focus on rehydration and bringing core temperature down in the hours following strenuous exercise in the heat. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

    Reply
    • Jennifer O'Connor

      What an excellent response from the CTS coach. It’s very rare for me to have decent sleep the night after a hard 50 or 100-mile race, or even a hard ultra-distance training run. I used to think it was muscle soreness but now believe it’s cortisol. Have tried Benadryl, muscle relaxers – nothing works. I now expect to be up a lot the night after a race, but I can usually sleep a good 9 hours the second night. And I try to do that as much as possible in the week after to recover.

      Reply
  5. Samantha

    That happens to me too. I’ve been told it’s from adrenalin and caffeine during the event, as well as muscle soreness. I’m curious if that’s correct.

    Reply
  6. Sheila

    I often find that I have difficulty sleeping after a long hard ride. My body just can’t relax and I can feel the recovery to the point of distraction. I usually sleep well the second night. Is that common?

    Reply

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