Ultrarunning: Recovering after an Ultra

December 6, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Recovering after an Ultra”, please leave it below in the comments section…

Recovery or the period that comes immediately after the racing event is just as important as the build up and preparation that leads to it. Quite simply, proper recovery is the crucial factor that allows you to run the next race. Take this aspect for granted then the next round of training sessions may likely end in disaster.

If you only plan on making a short and flashy appearance in the world of ultramarathons, then maybe recovery is not that big a deal for you. But if you think of running as a lifetime endeavor then practicing the right way to recover can give you the necessary longevity in this extreme kind of footrace.

What to expect

You can’t run such distances and expect to be light on your feet in the following days. There’s going to be delayed onset muscle soreness in the 24 hours immediately after the ultra and this pain is likely going to peak in the next day. If the race was particularly grueling, then there’s a big chance of muscle fiber damage in your legs.

Another part of your body that’s going to take a hit is your immune system. Running an ultra is going to use up a lot of your energy reserves, protein in particular. That leaves your immunity which is dependent on this basic nutrient, less than optimal.

Your average resting heart rate is also going to be noticeably higher than what it was during the taper. This is a normal reaction to the stress you just put your body through. You can keep daily tabs of your resting heart rate every morning during the recovery period in order to have a reliable measurement of how you’re recuperating.

Gradual return to normal training

The difficulty of the ultra you just completed is one of the factors that determine the length of the recovery period. It’s usually about 3 to 4 weeks for 50 milers and a month and a half for 100 milers. Of course your physical condition is a primary determinant as well. Runners that have been able to build up a high mileage base often recover quicker.

You can plan your recovery period just like you organized your training and taper. The idea is to gradually allow your body to return to a state where it can once again handle normal training loads. So the first week immediately after the ultra is going to be the lightest with nothing more than short walks, possibly some swimming, and at least 2 days of no strenuous activity. Then in the succeeding weeks you can little by little add more activity until such time you feel you can handle light mileage runs again. You’re going to have to listen closely to what your body is telling you during this time. For example if your resting heart rate is still 10 beats higher than what it was during the taper then that’s a reliable indicator that you aren’t fully recovered yet.

One important thing to watch out for is the temptation to immediately get back to normal training. There are several motivations that could trigger this behavior.  Some runners worry too much that they might lose the fitness. Others become overconfident after a very successful race. The inverse to this is the runner might feel he needs to ‘punish’ himself with more training after a poor performance.

Nutrition

This apparently plays a key role in your recovery. You need to get back all that fuel you spent on the ultra. Protein is particularly necessary as this not only helps repair muscles but will get your immune system back online. In the meantime, you should also take on more anti-oxidants such as Vitamins C and E, to give you more protection against infection.

Summary

Do you have questions about recovery, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

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