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.”
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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.