So what should you do if you don't have have super-human powers of muscle regeneration?
- Don't Run. I am of the belief that the best thing you can do to recover from run related stress is NOT run. I know that not everyone agrees with this and many people like to get out for a "shake out" run the day after a big event. But no matter how slow you go, running is a high impact activity and your muscles and tendons have to absorb forces greater than your body weight with every step. This is exposing your body to more of the exact same stresses that it underwent on race day. When you are fatigued, it is time to give your body a break from these stresses and that means a break from running. I think a good guideline is one day off running for every ten miles raced. This number can be adjusted based on how hard you worked, how much training you had going in to an event, your past experiences, and your overall perception of how tired you are.
-Stay Active. Just because you aren't running, doesn't mean you should sit around doing nothing those first couple of days. Low impact activities can help loosen up muscles and help get the blood circulating to speed recovery. Getting out for an easy walk or hike, riding the spin bike or swimming are all good choices. Remember to keep the effort easy and don't go do some crazy long marathon session!
-Eat Like a Horse. Recovery involves rebuilding muscle. It is very hard to do this if you are in a calorie deficit. And if you just ran a hundred miles you could easily be in a 50,000 calorie deficit! I find that I am typically down 3-5 pounds after a 100 miler. The day after the race my GI tract is usually still a bit wonky and eating doesn't sound all that wonderful. During this time I try to focus on getting rehydrated. Since drinking is often easier, I'll often get a lot of my post race nutrition from liquid calories, like soda, chocolate milk or milk shakes. This is a time for me when all of my normal good eating habits go out the window and I eat whatever I want. I ate two bowls of ice cream and a bunch of left over Peppermint Patties for my first meal after AC. But I am not alone; I have it on good authority that Liza Howard was eating donuts and Captain Crunch after Leadville! Once my stomach comes back, I pretty much eat anything and everything until I get back to my pre-race weight. I do not try to use a big race effort as a weight loss strategy as I think this impedes recovery for the reasons I mentioned. Indeed, many experts think insufficient calorie intake is a component leading to overtraining syndrome. When your body undergoes demanding physical exertion it requires a lot of calories both for fuel and for repair.
- Rest the Mind. Running an ultra is extremely mental and requires a lot of race day focus. Likewise, a huge amount of discipline is required during training. After a big effort your brain can use a rest, too! Don't make any hard and fast training schedules for a couple weeks to let your mind feel a little less structured. This is another reason I let my guard down a bit when it comes to nutrition; its nice to have a couple weeks where you don't have to think about every little thing and you don't have to fight against eating a slice of cheesecake (or two!).
-Get Lots of Sleep. Yeah, right! A lot of time we put the vacation in front of a big ultra and when the run is over we have to get right back to things like work and daily schedules which don't allow for lots of extra sleep. But sleep is an important part of recovery. Growth Hormone promotes muscle building and repair and these levels go up when we sleep. Sleep reduces stress and limits calorie expenditure so all of your body' efforts can go toward recovery when you are sleeping. I normally get up at 4:30 to do my training before work, but after a big effort, I'll do my light activity in the evenings so I can catch some more z's before work.
- Identify injury. Some soreness after a big event is expected, but if you have lingering pain after more than a couple days or the pain is not symmetric, you may have some kind of injury. Now is a good time to address those items and do some rehab work as needed.
- Ease Back In. Once you feel like you are ready to run, ease back in to training. One strategy that I like is to reverse your taper mileage but without the speed work. Work back up to your standard weekly mileage before bringing the speed work back. If getting back to training leaves you feeling more fatigued than usual, don't be afraid to take a day off or substitute in some hiking or cross training. Don't freak out about losing fitness - the goal during this time is to recover so you can start training hard again for your next event.
- Be realistic. If you have put in a really hard effort like 100 miles, it could easily take you five weeks to really start feeling good again. When it comes to recovery, I find my running abilities come back in this order: endurance (ie. long run), speed, and then hill strength. First I try to get back to my normal long run mileage (without too many hills or with hiking the hills), then I add back speed work, and then finally the hills come back. I have been surprised in the past when I can hit all my target times on the track, but then feel like I have no legs on a hill, even when not trying to run that fast. Now I just know that strength takes a lot longer to return.
- Don't compare. Marathoners run two big races a year and that is considered a full schedule, but it is common for ultra-runners to do 10-12 events a year. And then there a big name guys like Max and Mike Wardian who race twice a weekend! Like I said above, if you start reading all the social media posts you might start feeling like everyone but you recovers quickly. Everyone recovers at a different rate depending on their training, the level of effort on race day, and other individual factors. Additionally, women may need longer to recover than men because of lower testosterone levels. And Growth Hormone secretion decreases 2-3 fold from age 30 to age 40, which mean the repair signals to your body are decreasing. As an added "bonus", inflammatory mediators and catabolic hormones (those that break tissue down) increase as you age, so it is true that older runners need more recovery time.
As for me, I am having a hard time with recovery after AC. I feel like I am exactly where I would want to be one week out from a big event. Unfortunately, it is three weeks out! I am trying to take my own advice above, but it is hard to be patient! But Angeles Crest was off the chart effort for me: I told one person on an effort scale of 1 to 10, I was at 11.5! That came just 5 weeks after another very high effort at Western States. Not to mention I hit the big four - oh in less than a month! So logically it makes sense, but I still don't like feeling so tired! I took ten days off and then got back to running with a 3K cross country race. Don't worry, I didn't race! Instead I ran with Liam and he cranked out a 19:55 finish. I was surprisingly tired after that, but worse, I finally had to admit that I had a bit of injury going on with some pretty bad soreness behind both knees, but especially the left. I got a massage (and nearly cried when she worked on my calf) and did a little bit of icing and rolling (I hate both, so my efforts were kind of weak). This past week I hiked, ran a couple times (up to 5 miles - woohoo!) and did another 5k with the family. This time it was the Sweet Treats 5k with EIGHT dessert stations on course. Liam missed his 5K PR by two minutes, but considering he ate 2 scoops of gelato, 2 cookies, 2 mini crepes, a mini apple pie, and two cups of chocolate mousse, I think he had a pretty successful run! Which was rewarded with a popsicle at the finish! I skipped a couple of the stations, but even still I am quite sure we ate more calories than we burned! It was an awesome fund raiser that didn't require me dumping a bucket of ice water over my head! I took yesterday off and then got TWELVE hours of sleep last night! I feel so good today. This week is focused on getting back to daily running and the usual routine, but no speed! (maybe next week).
Recovery Hike at Silver Falls with the family
Sweet Treats 5k. And that is chocolate mousse near Liam's eyebrow, in case you were wondering!