POST-EVENT RECOVERY TIPS FOR ENDURANCE ATHLETES

by Thomas Wrona May 25, 2024 4 min read

POST-EVENT RECOVERY TIPS FOR ENDURANCE ATHLETES

You’ve just smashed your body. You lay crumpled on the ground somewhere beyond the finish line convulsing, gasping for air. Your extreme effort, once again, unseated and mixed the ordinary circuitry of misery and ecstasy, leaving you unable to label the feeling. This blending of seeming opposites, known intimately by us disciples, is intoxicating. Some call it the church of suffering. My quasi-religious interpretation of what endurance athletes experience aside, it should be noted that we really are a strange breed. We routinely push ourselves right to the brink of what we can physically and mentally handle, and think, sure, let's stay here as long as we can. As you slowly and shakily pull yourself up, squinting through your sweat, you find what you’re looking for: your recovery drink. Why? Because you’re already preparing to go back.

The Body After Intense Workout

After an intense race or workout, your body is in shambles. Glycogen stores are empty, your muscles are ripped (microscopic tears throughout), you're dehydrated, and your body is filled with stress hormones which suppress your immune system. No cause for alarm; this is the standard response to vigorous exercise, but it’s here you have a choice. If your body isn’t quickly replenished, your systems languish, and the rebuilding process is slowed and incomplete. The extreme thirst and feelings of depletion are your body’s (desperate) motivating signals to help reestablish equilibrium. Not only should you listen, but there’s an order of operations to abide by to maximize the gains. Do nothing and you’ll find yourself fatigued, sore, possibly vulnerable to illness. Every time you break your body down like this, it’s an opportunity to come back bigger, stronger, and faster. Don’t miss it.

I’ll walk you through my post-race routine as a guide. It’s not the ultimate guide, merely a reference from which you can create or refine your own recovery process.

What Your Body Needs Most Immediately

There’s a reason WorldTour cyclists take recovery drinks on the finish line and not later at the hotel; timing is everything. Simply put, the faster you replace what you’ve lost, the faster your body can repair itself. It’s not a bad deal.

First. Within 10 minutes of my race finish, I have a drink rich in carbs, electrolytes, and amino-acids. The carbs fill emptied glycogen stores, the electrolytes rebalance hydration levels, and the amino-acids kick-start muscle repair.

Next. Find a comfortable place to sit (typically among the other finishers to swap war stories) and drink lots of water for rehydration. If there are electrolytes to be consumed at this point, go for it.

Finally. I’ll do a very slow, very easy cool down for 10 minutes. The science is still out on the effectiveness of cool-downs, but even if they don’t facilitate recovery, it serves to help process and integrate whatever just happened in the race.

What Your Body Needs Ultimately

Now that you’re back at the hotel, or at home, or wherever, you can focus on the complete refueling of your body. Again, the earlier the better, but no later than 4 hours after your race finishes. Here’s what you need to do:

Eat. Your body is still massively undersupplied in carbohydrates and proteins; Time to refill the tanks. The standard replacement meal is 3:1 grams carb to protein, or even 4:1. I don’t count the grams (or god forbid, weigh the food); These ratios are my guides. I fill a plate with lots of rice or pasta, chicken or tofu, and vegetables. I’ll usually have a glass of probiotic rich Kefir to ensure my food is being processed efficiently and my GI is happy.

Roll. After your food has settled, it’s time to torture yourself again but this time without any sense of altered reality; it’s just misery. But do it all the same; it works to reduce muscle soreness by increasing blood flow. I have a foam roller and a rolling stick, but find myself mostly using the stick because it’s more portable. Find any knots and agonizingly smooth them out. Drink lots of water after your session.

Sleep. Most endurance athletes need more hours of sleep because we ask so much of its restorative functions. When sleeping, your body retracts its stress hormones (cortisol) and releases growth hormones to restore and rebuild your tissues. This is where the magic happens. Neglect your sleep and you slow your recovery and inhibit your progress.

The Next Day (or two). You’ll likely be sore, but even if not, give yourself a day to replenish and rebuild. A light, low intensity active recovery can aid your recovery, but if you’re still feeling it, do what endurance athletes struggle with most, rest.

Conclusion

It’s in the recovery where you make fitness gains. You dug a deep hole, and with these recommendations, you can refill it to a higher baseline. I’d formerly drink a beer immediately after a race, but as I’ve gotten older, my GI tract has become less impressed. Its deleterious effects, still present I’m sure, were masked by my youth. Just wait till dinner if you must. You wouldn’t neglect your race training, now pay the same respect to your race recovery. If your aim is to go bigger and longer yet, to go deeper still, it's your recovery techniques that enable it. Endurance racing is hard and inherently painful, but it’s because of this, not despite it, we keep coming back. It seems the deeper we go, the more devout we become to our church. I’ll see you in pews.


References:

  1. https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/foam-rolling-muscles#:~:text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20rolling,increasing%20your%20speed%20and%20flexibility.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10848936/
  3. https://www.sleepdr.com/the-sleep-blog/how-does-sleep-affect-exercise-recovery/
  4. https://www.primesurgicalsuites.com/blog/injury-recovery-why-sleep-is-so-important#:~:text=Sleep%20helps%20with%20recovery%20by,more%20effectively%20rebuild%20injured%20tissues

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