7 Steps to Recovery After Running an Ultramarathon

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

I love going to ultrarunning events to support, cheer, and congratulate/commiserate with athletes. And I go to some as a runner as well. Regardless of the race, after the finish line it’s time to recover, and I get a ton of questions about post-event recovery after ultramarathons. Here’s what I advise.

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.

Sleep

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.


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Comments 9

  1. So many people underestimate how long it takes their central nervous system to recover after ultramarathons. Our bodies do not just require time for our musculoskeletal system to recover but also the CNS – which is a longer time period.

  2. I feel best with 3 weeks or so between 100s. A solid training week, 2 moderate rest weeks, I stay conditioned to do 100 mi w/o overtraining, I just think of ultras as my long runs. I’m a slower mid pack runner so probably not causing the same stress on my body as the fast runners. 🤔

  3. Great article! The emotional side of it is definitely playing up with my head. I am taking it very easy this 1st week but somehow I just feel weird (and grumpy, i just feel like sleeping really). Agree with the previous comment that it’s a great time for yoga (and pilates). Take care everyone and thanks for sharing your tips.

  4. Great article and agree with you Marty. I’ve just completed by first 55k through the Lakeland’s in UK, it covering 3 mountain passes and being honest, although I trained hard, the terrain took me by surprise. The range of emotion I experienced in the week that followed was quite different to anything I have felt. This was unexpected and much beyond the typical “what next” way of thinking and feeling. There was a definate sense of loss. I picked up an injury on the run so couldn’t train post event but what helped remarkably was yoga. I found I could achieve the exercises daily, restored my emotional state and reminded me of the reasons we take on these challenges. I felt grounded and with more space to be with what comes next comes next. Would recommend to anyone. Wish you all the very best.

  5. I think your advice is OK for somebody who has not completed many ultra-distance events.

    Also consider some unconventional advice for the experienced ultra-runner —- the body will respond when it is stressed – you may feel pain when this happens but it WILL RESPOND. The question becomes…do you want to withstand the pain while the body strengthens itself? Everybody has their own answer…and there is no right or wrong answer.

    I have significant experience on this exact topic. Happy running to all!

  6. Great article! I only took 2 weeks off after my last 50 miler this spring before I was right back at the higher mileages and distance, and have been paying for it all summer – I’m on my 3rd overuse injury, and I am normally never injured. And they’ve all been injuries that I’ve never dealt with in my 20 years of distance running. It’s easy to feel invincible when you are competing at this level. I definitely learned my lesson.

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  8. I was actually getting ready to research this very topic. I finished the Mohican 100 (my first 100), about ten days ago and have been through quite a range of emotions. I didn’t think I would be alone and your article seems to be spot-on! Most of the time I listen to my body and things work out, but it’s nice to have more input on the subject.

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