You’re a finisher……How do I recover?

November 3, 2014

Whatever the feat you have just completed; marathon, adventure race, sprint triathlon, ironman, the Coolangatta gold or a 5km fun run, any physical achievement will demand a certain amount of rest and recovery. Many factors will affect the length of recovery following a race, these include; the athlete’s age, level of conditioning, injury status, nutrition (pre, during and post-race), taper and rest, experience in the sport & life stresses (work, family, travel). The biggest factor is the type of competition itself and the variables within that. For example; the type of sport, distance (eg. 5km run vs. ironman triathlon), racing intensity (sprint vs endurance sports), nutritional intake/ practice/ ability to absorb, course and weather conditions.

Post-race recover will also be impacted by what you do and don’t do immediately following your event and over the week/s following. Recovery is just as important as your pre-race training in determining how quickly you are back on the start line of your next race.

Once you cross the finish line:

EAT & DRINK ASAP: Immediately after a race rehydration is the first priority. Ideally this should be a combination of sodium (salt), electrolytes and water. Sports drinks on offer in the recovery tents/ areas are usually a good source of all three.  The first 30-60 minutes is also the best time to start to replenish glycogen (energy stores). This window is the optimal period in which to absorb glycogen after exercise. A combination of carbohydrates and protein is ideal. This can be in the form of a recovery smoothie or chocolate milk if the idea of solid food is too much. Try to follow- up soon after with a proper meal whilst you continue to rehydrate.

POST-RACE MASSAGE: A quick, easy, soft tissue rub-down post-race can aid early recovery, start lymphatic drainage of waste products, release tight and sore muscles and act as early treatment on injuries sustained during an event.

COMPRESSION:  some research has shown that compression may promote lactate removal, reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) & facilitate blood flow.* To be effective, lower limb compression garments need to be graduated in tightness from toes upwards, meaning quite firm around your feet and less so the further up your leg.

*Note: there is minimal evidence that compression garments improve athletic performance; however they do actually reduce muscle oscillation during activity which may reduce post-training or racing soreness.

ACTIVE RECOVERY: Walking around after your event is better than lying or sitting down. This will facilitate blood flow which will start to remove waste products from your muscles. Put on clean socks, comfortable shoes and stretch the legs out a little with a short, easy stroll.

ELEVATION: get the legs up. Once you’ve done all of the above and the post-race high is fading, you’ll want to rest your tired and sore body. Elevate your legs higher than your heart (eg. Lie down and put them up a wall) to help decrease the inflammatory ache in your muscles.

BATHS: Hot or cold is the big question?! Ice-baths post training and racing are a current fad; however, the scientific evidence is fairly inconclusive as to whether or not they are either detrimental or beneficial. The RICE regime for an acute injury recommends ice to help decrease pain and inflammation. This is the reasoning behind utilising ice-baths as a recovery technique. The other side of the argument is that by submersing yourself into icy cold water, you are in fact inhibiting your body’s natural anti-inflammatory and healing processes. This could also dispel the recommendation for warm baths too, as by increasing the blood flow to damaged & swollen muscles & joints you may be increasing the inflammation. Another detrimental factor of hot baths post competition is that they may contribute to further dehydration after activity.

In the ideal world contrast bathing would be the ultimate choice. This is a combination of alternating between hot and cold water. For example; alternating every 10 minutes between hot and cold baths for 40 minutes total. The warm water will help flush out the muscle’s waste products whilst bringing your body’s own anti-inflammatories to the area of damage, while the cold water aims to decrease any inflammation.

Recovery Week:

REST: The first day after a big event it’s a good idea to have a complete day of rest from training. Some gentle activity such as walking can help blood flow which can assist recovery from DOMS and help heal muscle tissue damage. Sleep is your biggest modality of recovery during the first days/ weeks following competition. During sleep your body is repairing and recharging. Try and get a few hours extra sleep each night following a race.

COMPRESION: If you have a long car or plane trip home from a race, aren’t moving for extended periods with your legs hanging down, the venous flow can be reduced causing your feet, ankles and legs to swell. Wearing full length leg compression teamed up with a good pair of compression socks can keep dependant swelling under control.

MASSAGE & STRETCHING: Post race massage is a great way to loosen up tight and sore muscles, promote relaxation and blood flow. There is some evidence suggesting that massage can decrease swelling of muscles, relieve pain and tension. If you have a massage during the first three days post-race, ensure that the pressure it light. After that period deep tissue massage may be resumed. Utilise self-massage equipment at home (eg. Foam roller, trigger ball) to help release muscle knots and tension. Avoid aggressive stretching for the first few days. Static stretching of a cold muscle is never a good idea and should ideally be performed after an active warm up.

ACTIVE RECOVERY: Returning to training is dependent on many variables; the biggest two being the type and duration of the race.
Running, impact and resistance competition will take the longest to return to after a hard and/or long race. If the event involved running, avoid it if you strained any muscles or have bad blisters on your feet. Running through these problems can make them much worse & alter you running style in compensation for your discomfort.

If your race was no more than 2 hours, after your initial rest day the remainder of the week can include some easy activity. Swimming, kicking in the pool, water running or easy spinning on a bike is a nice way to return to training quickly without irritating any post-race niggles. If you completed a long endurance event (eg. 24hr mountain bike or ironman triathlon) demanding months of training in preparation, this will require an extensive recovery period (most likely weeks). This is the opportunity to have a few weeks of minimal to no training and is the perfect opportunity to cross train or enjoy other non-physical activities you put on hold whilst preparing for your race.

PHYSIOTHERAPY: If you sustained an obvious acute injury during your event (eg. Ankle sprain, muscle tear) than try and see your physiotherapist as soon as possible post-race. Small niggles post-race are to be expected. Be wary of the danger period of doing too much too soon which can worsen any tissue damage sustained during the race. Small muscle strains can easily progress to large tears if you try to train too soon. If your general soreness is worsening or not improving day by day, there may be an underlying acute injury there. Don’t hesitate to see your physiotherapist for appropriate assessment and treatment.

Red flags to be aware of include;

  • joint pain lasting more than 48 hours
  • inability to weight-bear
  • tenderness in one specific spot (like on a bone or muscle)
  • swelling of a joint or muscle
  • comparative weakness on one side compared to the other
  • night pain and
  • unrelenting pins and needles or numbness.

If you are experiencing any one or more of these symptoms, cease all activity to prevent any further damage and see you physiotherapist. Early assessment and intervention of acute injuries will speed up your recovery and ensure a quick return to training and racing.

Planning your next event:

This really comes down to what type of event you are competing in. A 5km run means you may be straight back to competing the following weekend. A 14 hour ironman triathlon usually requires weeks to months recovery. It is not uncommon for experience and elite athletes to race back to back weekends, however for the weekend warrior we would encourage complete recovery from your most recent event before jumping into the next.

Steven Bofinger

Steven has been a qualified physiotherapist for more than 25 years, with a strong interest in sports injuries. Steven has been involved with a number of regional, state and national level teams and athletes, particularly in the sports of rugby union, rugby league, cricket, water polo and surfing. Steven is currently the Head Physiotherapist for the Sunshine Coast Falcons Rugby League team and consultant physiotherapist to the Ocean Performance Centre.