By Jason Koop, CTS Coach and author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
I just returned home from supporting athletes at the 2017 Western States Endurance Run, and I’m tired. I need a recovery week and I didn’t even run the race! Congratulations to everyone who toed the start line, fought through their individual rough patches, and persevered to the finish. It was an exciting race, full of inspirational stories and great displays of sportsmanship. Now that it’s over, or when you reach the end of your 100-mile ultramarathon, it’s time to recover.
The biggest misconception about recovery after a 100-miler is that it happens quickly, and the biggest mistake athletes make is getting back into structured training too soon. To be a healthy ultrarunner and continue racing or participating for a long time, it’s essential to give your body and mind a significant break between events. For many athletes, running is an integral part of your lifestyle, which means the recovery period following a 100-miler requires patience and an unfamiliar change to your routine. It’s worth it, and here are some tips for optimizing recovery so you can continue to run strong.
No Runs Over 20 Minutes for the First Week
For the first few days after a 100-miler you probably won’t have much desire to run more than 20 minutes, but that itch is likely to come back sooner than you think. It’s not that you can’t physically run longer than 20 minutes; it’s that your recovery is more important than that 1-hour run right now. Give your body a significant rest and it will reward you with a stronger return to training when it’s time to begin again. For Week 2 and Week 3 post 100-miler, continue with recovery paced runs only, and keep these under 1 hour.
This is different than active recovery mentioned above. Sleep is essential for recovery because of the physiological processes that only occur while you sleep. Your body releases hormones essential for repairing muscle, maintaining the immune system, and adapting to exercise stress when you are sleeping. Focus on both sleep quality and duration. This is not the time to stay up late to catch up on projects you may have back-burnered in the weeks before your event. I recommend going to bed earlier, if necessary, to get 8-10 hours of sleep on a regular basis for at least two weeks. To optimize sleep quality, cool the environment to 62-70 degrees, avoid backlit screens (phones, tablets) for 1-2 hours prior to getting in bed, and eliminate as much light as possible.
Eat a lot of good food
There are times when backing off on calories makes sense in conjunction with reduced training workload, but the first few weeks after a 100-miler is not one of them. Adequate energy intake is essential for recovery. Restricting calories will mean it will take longer to return to feeling strong and ready to return to your normal running volume and frequency. This isn’t a license to fill up on junk (OK, a little junk is fine, but don’t overdo it.); think of your food choices in terms of building your body back up to full strength. You want to focus on fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains – just like any other time. Some athletes feel compelled to load up on more protein than normal, but this isn’t really necessary. A balanced approach with 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day is plenty. The bigger disadvantage of overloading with protein is that it often displaces intake of fruits, vegetables, fats, and grains. Your body needs some of everything.
Take care of your skin
While your muscles take a beating during a 100-miler, they’ll recover on their own with adequate rest, sleep, and nutrition. Your skin needs some more proactive attention, especially your feet. Treating blisters after your event is just as important as treating them during the run itself. Pop and drain blisters with the same meticulousness you would out on the trail. Here’s a guide to treating blisters.
Address nagging injuries before returning to training
Allow extra recovery time to address injuries sustained or resulting from your 100-miler, if necessary. It may take some time to discern between post-event soreness or swelling and an actual injury, but don’t make the mistake of getting used to the pain instead of seeking to eliminate it. A good physical therapist experienced in working with distance runners can be an invaluable resource. In the long run you will be far better off being conservative in your timeline for returning to training. Treat small injuries while they are still small, or months or years later you’ll be able to trace a major injury back to something you should have dealt with long ago.
Incorporate non-running exercise
The month after a 100-miler is a great time to incorporate activities other than running. I am not a proponent of cross-training as a way to enhance running performance, but that doesn’t mean ultrarunners shouldn’t participate in non-running activities for other purposes. In this case, activities like swimming, easy cycling, yoga, kayaking, and paddle boarding can provide an outlet for your desire to be active while giving your feet and legs a break.
Stop thinking about running (for a while)
A psychological break is as necessary as a physical one after a 100-miler. In my view there are two parts to psychological recovery: celebration and redirection. First, it’s important to celebrate your achievement. Soak it in, take pride in it, and tell or write your stories. If it wasn’t a great outcome, you should similarly take time to feel and express your frustration or sadness. Good or bad, don’t just push it into the past by immediately focusing on “what’s next”. You invested a huge amount of time and effort into preparing for and running your race. Honor that process by honestly experiencing the feelings that came from it.
The next step is redirecting your attention away from running for a while. That doesn’t mean you can’t run or that you need to disconnect from your friends in the running community. It just means there should be a period where you’re not planning for your next race, where you’re running just for fun, without structure. I know people are in a good place 3-4 weeks after a 100-miler when they answer, “I don’t really know” to questions about “what’s next”. Even if you have another race on the calendar, give your overactive mind some time to unwind before ramping up your focus again.
The next logical question is: How will I know when it’s time to start training again? Emotion is the biggest indicator for me. An athlete is ready to go when he or she is excited to train again and feels physically fresh and energetic. You can use physiological data or a structured timeline, but even if it takes a week or more for the athlete to want to train after the data indicates they were physically ready, that extra time is worth the wait.