Optimizing Recovery As An Ultrarunner in a 24/7 World


By Adam St. Pierre, CTS Ultrarunning Coach

I am an athlete 24 hours a day. I am also a coach 24 hours a day. And a dad 24 hours a day. And a husband. And a son. And a friend… Life would be easy if there were 120 hours in a day, but there aren’t. There are 24 hours in a day. Every day. To be an athlete and a coach and a dad and a husband… requires balance.

Lets think specifically about being an athlete 24 hours a day. To improve fitness you need to spend some of those hours training, and the rest recovering from training so you can perform more training in the future. The amount of training is largely dictated by your other daily responsibilities. I’d love to be able to run for 3+ hours in the mountains every day, but to do so would require ignoring my job and shirking my household responsibilities. Instead, I identify the best times to train so workouts detract minimally from other responsibilities. Then I try to fill those times with workouts that will improve my fitness as much as possible within my constraints. Those exact workouts vary based on time of year, upcoming goal races/events, the goals of the training plan, and the recovery status of the athlete.

Some athletes have the luxury of spending non-training hours focused on recovery, but for most athletes, non-training hours are often spent focused on anything but recovery: work, family obligations, etc. Here are some way to optimize recovery while keeping up with all the other priorities in your life:

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Very often, busy athletes sacrifice sleep in the name of training. If you are sleeping fewer hours, make sure to maximize the quality of your sleep:

  • Research shows that listening to 20-45 min of relaxing music before bedtime may improve sleep quality.
  • Limit caffeine intake: none within 6 hours of bedtime.
  • Limit alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but it impairs the restorative properties of sleep.
  • Stick to a set bedtime as much as possible.
  • Avoid screen time for 1 hour before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool, comfortable, and uncluttered.
  • Try not to do multiple nights of short sleep in a row to avoid compounding effects of sleep deprivation.

Recover While You Work

Most of us spend most of our daytime hours at work. For some, work is on your feet and active. For others, it’s at a desk and sedentary. Both have effects on recovery.

  • Physically-demanding jobs: From a training perspective, a full day at a physically demanding job will detract from your recovery and subsequent workout performance. Keep your physical job stress in mind and focus on quality workouts over endless junk miles (generally true for all athletes, but especially true for those with physically-demanding jobs). Your job may provide some base endurance training; make the most of your training time by focusing on specific areas.
  • Sedentary jobs: Sedentary jobs don’t tax the same way as physical jobs, but bring other unique challenges. Plenty of articles have been written about the “dangers” of sitting all day. Many of those studies relate to folks who sit both for work and for leisure, and so aren’t 100% applicable to athletes with sedentary jobs. Still, sitting at a desk all day leads to tight hip flexors, which can affect your biomechanics and lead to a variety of injury issues and reduced performance. On the other end of the spectrum, just standing all day at your desk may not adequately solve the problem. For an athlete in heavy training, a standing desk may lead to other issues. For instance, if you’re nursing a foot injury, standing all day may stress your feet. As with all things, the sit-vs-stand at work debate is a spectrum. The ideal balance appears to be sitting sometimes and standing sometimes. The key is to break up the monotony of either position with movement. Break your workday into 2-3 hour blocks and take a 5-20 min movement break in between blocks. Get a drink, use the bathroom (you’ll have to if you are hydrating adequately!), do some light stretching, crank out some push-ups… just move.

Eat Like An Athlete All Day

Nutrition is a huge subject with lots of differing information and arguments (more on this in a future blog post!). As a 24-hour athlete, here are some things to think about:

  • Many athletes would like to be a few pounds lighter, myself included. However, it’s important to remember you must always consume enough calories to recover from training. A chronic calorie deficit is a great way to bring on the dreaded Overtraining Syndrome. Make good choices about what you put into your body and when you put energy into your body. Training hard is not an excuse to eat everything in sight (unless your 40k run turned into a 55k run and the only thing you can see is a double cheeseburger and Coke…)
  • Some athletes choose to do some training in a carbohydrate-depleted state to optimize fat metabolism. In general, endurance-focused workouts up to 2 hours can be done regularly in a fasted state (no calories before or during, water to thirst). However, you may notice inhibited performance at higher intensities in a fasted state, so I don’t recommend doing Steady State, Tempo, or Interval work without consuming some carbs. Doing longer fasted endurance runs on occasion may be beneficial, but respect the toll these efforts may take on your body.
  • A lot gets written about post-workout recovery. There is a window following exercise where glycogen synthase (the enzyme that converts blood sugar to muscle glycogen) is extra active for 30-ish minutes. Consuming some carbohydrate calories immediately after exercise ensures that your glycogen stores get replenished quickly, however, unless you are training twice a day or consciously consuming a low-carbohydrate diet, it’s unlikely that you aren’t fully replenishing glycogen stores prior to your next workout. If you consume a mixed diet and adequate calories for your lifestyle, your glycogen stores will be fully replenished within 24 hours after a workout, even if you don’t take advantage of the “glycogen window”. Don’t use the “30 min window” as an excuse for eating all the pastries you see after a workout! Instead, just have 1 or 2 pastries (donuts are my favorite).

We spend so much time thinking about the training, but often overlook what happens in all those non-training hours. While you may not be able to fully focus on recovery like a professional athlete, there are lots of things you can do each day to support your training. Pick a few things to try to implement into your daily routine to improve the quality of your training and recovery.

Comments 4

  1. I agree regarding the risk of “recovery” leading to over consumption of carbs.

    However post exercise nutrition is not just about replenishing glycogen. It is also about switching from the catabolic muscle burning physiology provoked by exercise to anabolic muscle building that leads to fitness improvements.

    This is accelerated by taking in some high GI carbs along with easily digested protein post workout. The amount of carbs does not need to be large, 10g is enough.

  2. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Tue, Sep 5 | Ultrarunnerpodcast

  3. What is the recipe for the picture above of the, chic peas, zucchini and broccoli? I love to learn new recipes, especially those that are healthy to the body with good nutrients.

  4. I’m a cyclist partly because I love the time on the bike but also because it helps keeps my diet in check when I’m off the bike. Cycling as a religion forces me to behave when it comes to what I decide and don’t decide
    to eat when I’m recovering. It’s almost as if I do cycling for the recovery blocks, the time not spent on the bike. For instance I practically gave up alchohol to help me achieve my weight goals. I really dig climbing hills. It’s all really a big ploy to help keep my weight in check. I rarely compete but am very self competitive..

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