During the tough parts of a trail race I sometimes think of what I want to do when my feet finally cross that finish line. Usually I think of laying down, curling up in a ball, buying my favorite flavor of NyQuil and sleeping dreamlessly for about a week. Runners often hobble awkwardly around for a few days, drawing stares in the airport, office, or at the grocery store. In an exhausted attempt at recovery we might take some Advil, soak in a hot tub, or get a massage. Slowly the soreness melts from the legs.
Sometimes you need to get back functioning fast. Maybe you have another race in a few weeks, or just don’t want to feel like death for a month. With a little focused effort on recovery I think you can be back on the trails, feeling good before Michael Wardian runs his next race.
The first five points are things that require a little bit of urgency. You want to do these things between one and five hours after crossing that finish line.
*These tips are simply based on personal experience, and stuff I’ve read over the past year. The tips are simple, logical and based in science but this is by no means a sports psychology article. Comments and your thoughts or tips are welcomed!
1) Eat and Drink: Typically when I cross the finish line the smell of even good food causes nausea. Occasionally Gatorade is all I can do, sometimes I am eating a burger within the hour. I don’t think it matters all that much what you actually eat after the race, but eating at the finish line is important. After Bandera 100k last weekend I ate soup, sour skittles, and oreos. On the drive back to the airport hotel I got a milkshake. Before showering I got out of bed and visited the WHATABURGER across the street. After 8 hours of eating GU and drinking Coke the day was far from following the food pyramid but hey, “When in Texas.” The goal is to get in some calories. The day after the race the goal is getting back to real food.
2) Ice Bath: The practice of taking ice baths after hard efforts has been under scrutiny for some time now. Many folks debate if the stimulus actually benefits athletes. Does reducing inflammation actually result in a long term performance benefit? Unfortunately, I take the middle ground on this topic, I believe that using ice baths regularly in training does not lead to long term performance benefit, but I do think that when the focus is recovering as quickly as possible ice baths are extremely valuable. That being said, when the body is struggling to function (as often is the case after an ultra or hard marathon) getting really cold is probably not a good idea. If you are already cold or incoherent, skip the ice bath.
3) Get Clean: Taking a shower is probably first on the list for many runners, but for some of us that hotel bed or sleeping bag looks too tempting. If you can get yourself a little cleaner it will wake you up a bit and probably make you simply feel better. After almost every ultra I’ve run, I’ve been in the nearest natural body of water within an hour of finishing. Warm or cold water on the body just loosens things up.
4) Elevate your legs: After Western States this year my legs and feet looked…round. The puffy swelling of my feet and legs was not only painful, but gave my roommates plenty of joke material regarding my “cankles.” After 10 minutes with my feet up against the wall, well let’s just say there were plenty more jokes, but not about my ankles.
5) Wear Some Compression: Put on some tights or sleeves. Just don’t fall asleep wearing compression product or you might wake up in a sweaty, constricted panic. I’ve done this a number of times. Taking compression tights off in the dark is, well…challenging.
6) Massage/ Foam Roll: It might not feel good at first… well probably worse than “not good” but this is a game changer. That tightness will be significantly opened up with 10 minutes on the foam roller. If you have time, a massage will also flush out the legs and loosen tight muscles.
7) Clean Those Feet: After running a long trail race your feet are usually in rough shape. Typically I just get a tub of hot water and scrub my feet with a roommates toothbrush. Get the dirt out from under the nails, scrub the calluses down, drain and clean the blisters. Having messed up toenails and wrecked feet is often a badge of honor in the ultra community. That’s great if the damage is only on the surface, but if a toenail gets permanently damaged or a blister gets infected, well then for a month you’re just somebody who thinks GU is a food group, and spends too much time on IRunFar.
8) Hibernate: Like a bear. Sleep 10 hours a night, read a book, take the time and effort you usually spend training and spend it repairing the damage you did to your body.
9) Make your crew dinner: If you are lucky enough to have a support team or person at your big race, tell them thanks. In the weeks following your big event you’re probably fighting the post race doldrums. I have found that the best way to try to beat this is doing something nice for someone else. Your support system did a lot for you, do something for them.
Proper recovery takes time, but hey, It’s not like you wanted a social life anyway… right?