How to recover from Ironman
The best recovery after an Ironman or an Ironman 70.3 is one that optimises your musculoskeletal recovery yet also maintains your conditioning. You’ve built superior fitness leading into the event, so you don’t want to lose it and then have to start from scratch. To help with focus and motivation while getting back into structured training, there are long and short course events that you can do in the first five to six months of the New Year.
Research indicates that the muscle damage from running a marathon or pushing at 85%+ for four hours plus can last up to two weeks. The research also indicates that soreness (or the lack thereof) is not a good indicator of muscular healing. In other words, just because you aren’t sore anymore doesn’t mean that you are fully healed. This is the danger for Ironman or Ironman 70.3 runners – post-event muscular soreness fades after a few days but sub-microscopic damage within the muscle cells remains. By returning to training especially without a plan – this may include some short high-intensity sessions or long slow sessions – you risk delaying full recovery, overuse injury and the chance of being ready to start working towards your next goal.
Immediately after the event, the priority needs to be maximising your body’s ability to start the healing process. This is done by firstly, providing gentle blood flow to the area to help bring healing nutrients into the muscles and, to remove waste products and damaged tissue. A gentle massage can help, an easy light swim and if you are able to, do some walking
(I know, this may be impossible!). All of this can be done in the first few days after your last event. Once muscle soreness has significantly reduced (usually four to six days after the race), you can start doing some easy rides or light spinning on the bike. Days of complete rest and sleep are also critical to your recovery so don’t forget to prioritise these.
No athlete wants to get super fit and then lose everything during the time off/recovery process. But it is critical you give the body a chance to absorb the load of training and the race in the time post event. The tricky part is to find a balance of allowing the body to recover and maintaining some fitness.
The bad news is that no matter what you do, you will lose race sharpness. But that’s OK because your next big race is probably several months away. The good news is that most research indicates that as long as there is an aerobic stimulus once every two to three days, aerobic fitness will be maintained.
In the following recovery plan, you run at least once every other day, except for the first two days after the event. It can be difficult managing how much load is enough to maintain some fitness but still allow the body time to recover. Days off are a key to kick-starting the recovery, so below are suggested complete days off. Obviously age, experience in the sport, amount of racing and the climate you raced in all influence what is required by each athlete.
Recovery training schedule
Recommended days off –
- Week 1: Up to 4 days off
- Weeks 2-3: At least 2 days off
- Weeks 4-6: At least 1 day off
Note: Some athletes are comfortable taking more time off. Others plan a family holiday post-Ironman or Ironman 70.3, which makes it a little easier to take days off and get yourself out of your training routine.
As triathletes, we are lucky to be able to do training that has less load than just running. Swimming is a great example of this. Cycling is also great as long as you don’t make things too long or sustained high intensity.
As a general rule I say to athletes:
- For 4 weeks post-Ironman – keep the intensity under 80%mhr or RPE <7/10
- For 4 weeks post-Ironman – suggested long ride is 2-3 hours; suggested long run <75 minutes
Great recovery option: Plan a family holiday after an Ironman or Ironman 70.3. This will make it easier to take days off and get yourself out of your regular training routine.
Other key recovery tips:
- Strength and rehab work can commence after a week post-Ironman as long as you don’t have an injury coming out of the event or going into the Ironman.
- Change things around. Part of the recovery process is to recover from the mental fatigue of training for an endurance event. So, reward yourself, change to a different swim time, swim in a different pool or swim in the open water if that is available.
- Ride off-road rather than on your road bike. Yes, this does require a mountain bike or cross bike but it’s a great way to improve your bike skills plus see some new places.
- Recovery time is also the best chance to pay back your support team for the help provided during your lead up to and participation in the event (Ironman or Ironman 70.3). Use this time to spend more time with family and friends.
Finally, use recovery as the opportunity to celebrate your success and recharge your systems. Determine what went right in training and in the race and what you need to change, address it and learn from it. If you use this time correctly you can come out of your recovery time mentally and physically recharged, and ready to start working on your next goal.